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With hotshot Haaland, can Dortmund crush PSG’s Champions League dreams?

Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund striker and the most impressive young talent of the day.
Erling Haaland, Borussia Dortmund striker and the most impressive young talent of the day. © Ina Fassbender, AFP

PSG face a big challenge in their latest campaign to make it in the Champions League, as they take on Borussia Dortmund in the last 16 on Tuesday evening. Given their defensive weaknesses, the Parisians are counting on attacking powerhouses Mbappé, di Maria and Neymar – but Dortmund may have a trump card to play in the shape of Erling Haaland, football’s hottest young talent.

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PSG dominate French football – at the start of each new season, there is rarely any doubt that they will win Ligue 1. But the Champions League is a different story: its knockout stages have long been the graveyard of PSG’s hopes to impose themselves as one of football’s giants. Those infamous defeats to Barcelona and the diminished post-Ferguson Manchester United characterised them as flashy upstarts, who crumble against clubs with long, illustrious histories and the resilience that goes with them.

Dortmund don’t boast quite as much prestige as Barca and the Red Devils, but they are renowned for their full-throated attacking style – an approach boosted by the arrival of 19-year-old Erling Haaland in December. Combining lacerating pace with quick-thinking intelligence in the box, the Norwegian wunderkind has so far scored nine goals in just six games for Dortmund, making him look like a bargain at €20 million.

 

Haaland isn’t the only Dortmund 19-year-old for PSG defenders to worry about. Playing in a slightly deeper, wider position as an inside winger, Englishman Jadon Sancho first captured public attention when he became the youngest ever player to score eight goals in a Bundesliga season in February 2019, a tally he brought up to 12 by the end of the footballing year. Having further sharpened his skills as a fearsome attacker, with darting runs into the box and clinical finishing skills, Sancho has shown an even more impressive track record this season, with 16 goals in 30 appearances.                                                                

A more experienced presence plays behind these young stars: Mario Gotze, a 27-year-old attacking midfielder whose speed and often transformational creativity prompted football legend Franz Beckenbauer to describe him as the “German Messi”.

‘Some huge roaring monster’

Yet perhaps Dortmund’s most distinctive asset is the famous “Yellow Wall”, the south stand crammed with fervent fans that makes its home ground one of football’s most imposing fortresses. “They all stand, chant and make such a noise that the stand seems like the pharynx of some huge roaring monster,” Johnny Rotten, lead singer of the Sex Pistols and a devoted Arsenal fan, memorably described it.

 

The Yellow Wall has certainly had an effect on Haaland, who told journalists that playing in front of this iconic stand gave him a “fantastic feeling that I haven’t had before”. And confronting on-form attacking talents like Haaland, Sancho and Gotze in an intimidating atmosphere is the last thing PSG defenders will want: they displayed a smorgasbord of errors in their 4-4 collapse against Amiens on Saturday.

This wasn’t the club’s strongest starting XI, with some second-choice players drafted in and some reliable stalwarts placed in strange positions – like central midfielder Andreas Herrera, who was at right back. Nevertheless, after getting away with some shoddy defending in their previous three games, it's striking that the Parisians were 3-0 behind within the first 40 minutes – against one of the weakest sides in Europe’s weakest major league, languishing in Ligue 1’s relegation zone in 19th place. Most ominously for PSG, their 35-year-old captain Thiago Silva showed his age, substituted at half time after Amiens attackers repeatedly caught him napping and ran him ragged.

Of course, the Parisians’ greatest talents play up front. Neymar and Kylian Mbappé were both rested on Saturday, but it remains to be seen whether the former will be in a fit state to face Dortmund. PSG manager Thomas Tuchel insisted on Friday that the Brazilian playmaker will have recovered from his rib injury to be able to play, “without being in the best shape”. But he backtracked after the Amiens game, telling journalists he “can’t say right now”.

 

Dortmund are similarly marred by injuries. Captain Marco Reus – like Gotze, a dynamic creative midfielder in the mould of Paul Scholes – and Julian Brandt, one of the world’s most promising wingers, are both out of action.

For PSG, an even better winger than Brandt, Angel di Maria, provided hope amid Saturday’s debacle, supplying some of sharp passes and marauding runs down the flank that mark him as one of the world’s greatest wingers – even as a 32_year-old, in the fifteenth year of his professional career. Mbappé, too, is a talismanic presence who can single-handedly transform a match to PSG’s benefit. The young French icon has scored 48 goals in 47 games since his €180 million transfer from Monaco in 2018 – a track record that speaks for itself.

Many PSG fans will cherish the hope that Mbappé’s gifts – the pace and passes that slice through even the strongest of defences, combined with merciless finishing skills – make them contenders to surge through the Champions’ League knockout rounds, overcoming football’s titans to finally break the curse that saw them collapse in the face of Barca and Man United.

But perhaps it augurs badly for PSG that Mbappé’s year was 2018 – when he won the hearts of football fans the world over with majestic performances in France’s victorious World Cup campaign – whereas in 2020 the name on everyone’s lips is Erling Haaland.

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