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“What else could I have done to stop him?”, Javi Montero asks himself, pursing his lips together as he racks his brain.

“Truthfully, I’m not sure — apart from killing him.”

The Spanish centre-back is talking about his role in Erling Haaland’s first goal during Besiktas’ 5-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League group stage in 2021.

They lost 2-1 in Turkey before the thrashing in Germany, with Haaland scoring three goals across the two games.

This goal — the fourth of the game in Dortmund — is the one that captures his irrepressible scoring power in its fullest because, on the face of it, Montero does just about everything right, yet still ends up in no man’s land.

Haaland had started the game in December on the bench.

When we found out we said, ‘Thank goodness’,” laughs Montero. 

“It was a relief for us but he scored two goals as soon as he came on. I was like, ‘Fuck’.

“He was incredible. You always had a feeling of danger with every ball he touched. And in the box, almost every time he touches the ball, it’s a goal.”

Montero is talking through the play as it progresses, which starts with Dortmund playing the ball to the left flank. Haaland is positioned centrally, just outside the penalty area, and begins to move towards goal as soon as the ball enters a crossing position.

When the Dortmund full-back looks like he is about to cross, Haaland makes a movement to the front post and Montero mirrors his movements. The ball doesn’t come and Haaland checks back at the same time as Nico Schulz beats his man to reach the byline.

“There we’re both fighting and battling when the ball is about to be played in,’ says Montero.

“In that moment, I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got him here and it’s complicated for him to shoot because he’s stuck to me but…’ he trails off, pausing as the cross is delivered.

Haaland shrugs off Montero and drifts to the back post where there is more space to attack. Montero’s feet are planted as he chose to defend the centre of the goal but Haaland anticipates the cross perfectly and heads back across goal to score.

“It was really difficult to follow him because he peels off behind and moves towards the left-back zone,” says Montero.

Haaland scored 86 goals in 92 games at Dortmund but even then he wasn’t quite the monster he is now at Manchester City.

He has been named Premier League player of the season in his debut year, broken the league’s single-season goal record and scored 52 goals in as many appearances, averaging one every 78 minutes.

At just 22, he already has 208 career goals and could be the man to inspire City to a treble if he can terrorise the Inter Milan defence the way he has so many others.

Montero fared as well as could be hoped for in Besiktas’ first meeting with Dortmund.

“I marked him well, I anticipated his movement well with every ball, I was strong and beat him to almost every ball. He still scored,” laughs Moreno.

“Obviously at that time he wasn’t the best No 9 in the world but he was in the top three.”

There were not many occasions that Montero was isolated against Haaland but a chance for Jude Bellingham after the break came from the Norwegian being one-v-one with his back to goal and spinning Montero. 

“It’s really complicated to stop him because you don’t know how to defend against him,” he says.

“You’ve got to be really attentive to everything he does because, if you defend with a high line, he’s really fast running into space.

“But here I also realised how strong he is when it comes to receiving the ball between defenders and holding it up.”

After that initial experience, Besiktas’ reaction to Haaland’s absence in the second game was as expected.

‘Thank goodness!’ It was a relief but he scored two goals as soon as he came on. It was like, ‘Fuck’. He was incredible. You always had a feeling of danger with every ball he touched.”

Montero is one of five centre-backs The Athletic spoke to in detail about what it is like to go toe-to-toe with the Norwegian striker.

In March 2018, Haaland had just begun his first full season as a regular starter with Molde after joining from Bryne FK.

He was not the famous name he is now but for Scotland Under-19 defender Aidan Wilson, now 24 and playing for Glentoran, but then a 19-year-old who had only made two senior appearances at Rangers, the European Championship qualifier against Norway was a shock to the system.

“He was just massive. Tall, lean, fast. A man,” says Wilson.

“I was at the front of the tunnel and he was at the back so it was only at kick-off I saw the size of him. I was strong and quick for my age but he was that bit more developed than the rest of us.”

Norway won 5-4 with Haaland scoring a hat-trick, although two of the strikes were penalties. Wilson is proud of how he and Watford defender Ryan Porteous did against him overall but what sticks in his mind is the physicality of Haaland even then.

“He was nasty. He would stand on your toes, barge into you, hold onto you. I was used to youth football but he had the other side from a young age and that was because he was desperate to score all the time. You could literally feel that hunger to score at all times.”

Haaland has developed physically since but by 2018 he already had the template of his game and the ability to change gears rapidly.

“He never really dropped in or picked a side so he wasn’t involved much. He just stayed between us on the shoulder and waited for the play to develop. He was still thinking all the time, that was just him resting so he was fresh.

“As soon as he sniffed he could run behind he was off. His explosiveness was scary.”

In Norwegian footballing circles, Haaland had been making an impression in the youth national teams but he was raw and had only scored four senior goals when he came up against experienced Rosenborg centre-back Tore Reginiussen in July 2018.

Molde were losing 3-0 when Haaland came on with 35 minutes remaining but 32-year-old Regniussen got the better of the 17-year-old.

“He was still a young guy at the time so he was big but he didn’t have the physique so I stopped him quite well. I smashed him out of the pitch at one point and it is on video so I will always have that to show my grandchildren,” laughs Reginiussen.

“I could still tell he had the full package. Normally the striker you are against is fast but not strong, strong but not fast, a good dribbler but not a good finisher.

“The thing with Erling is he is so good at everything and that makes him really hard to stop. He also has a hunger for goals like I have never seen.”

He came up against Haaland from the start five months later and Reginiussen recalls how rapidly he had developed in such a short space of time, having scored four goals in one game against Brann to fully break into the public consciousness.

“He was just giving us a hard time the whole game. That game I better understood that he was going to be a top player as, for a young player, his timing was so good that it was almost impossible to play him offside,” says Reginiussen, who later became a team-mate in the Norway national team.

“Some players need a big space but he only needs a small area because of his timing and his chemistry with the passer.

“His heading wasn’t the best then but his development has been so quick that he almost doesn’t have a weakness. Every time he goes up a level he makes the step immediately.”

By mid-2020 Haaland was now an established name at the elite end of European football having torn up the Austrian League with Red Bull Salzburg for a year before switching to Dortmund in January 2020.

In September and October of that year, he led the line for Norway in two Nations League B games against Northern Ireland.

Sunderland centre-back Daniel Ballard was 20 at the time and had made his senior national team debut just the week before. The first half of the 5-1 defeat to Norway — Ballard came off at half-time — remains the toughest test he has faced in his career.

“I had not played many professional games at the time so his demeanour in the tunnel was like that of a superstar. Usually, they look relaxed and calm but he was dialled-in.

“He looked scary, staring all of us in the eyes. Maybe he wasn’t trying to show his presence but that’s what it felt like,” Ballard tells The Athletic.

On the pitch Haaland made Ballard feel vulnerable in a way he had never experienced before.

“We were trying to press with four at the back and I instantly knew I had never felt so exposed before. He made three or four runs in behind me where he didn’t get the ball but it put me on the back foot.

“There was one clipped in behind me and I was sprinting at three-quarter pace as I was sure it was going out but he didn’t give up and kept it in. It was a bit of a shock.

“Norway were turning the ball and he was getting up to full speed every time. It does affect you and makes you think twice as you know you’re supposed to be holding a line but you naturally drop. Then when he starts to get it and turn you squeeze up but you end up being caught between the two, doing neither.

“I’d never played against someone so big who had the movement and sharpness of a small striker. It’s frightening as sometimes he’s not moving and then it’s 0-100, which catches you off guard. I remember looking a the clock confused as to how he had scored two goals when he had hardly touched the ball.”

Haaland’s first goal came from a long ball nodded down by his strike partner Alexander Sorloth, which he half-volleyed in from outside the box without even bringing it down.

“I remember it coming off my thigh and thinking I’m quite happy with the situation as I had got the second contact and the ball was going away from danger,” laughs Ballard.

 

The second meeting was not as much of a whirlwind. Norway won 1-0 but it was a close contest and Northern Ireland learned their lesson, playing deeper with a back five to limit Haaland’s space.

Ballard played 87 minutes of this contest and was happy with his performance but there was a moment early on when Haaland ran off him to get on the end a pass that the defender says shows the striker’s ability to get into the head of his direct opponent.

“You can see how fixated I am on him. My body positioning is purely focused on trying to stop him. I try to grab him to get a hold of him and it gets me into a world of trouble.

“This is a direct result of the game before and knowing how dangerous he is. I am sort of panicking there and trying to stop him from running but he’s so strong that he can roll you off.

“A big game like that means you’re already on edge, so having him there makes you do things you normally wouldn’t do. That’s what he can do to you.”

When Timo Baumgartl first faced Haaland in 2020 as a Germany Under-21 centre-back he saw a “good, but not incredible” striker.

When he faced him with Union Berlin last season against Dortmund, he recalls the conversation on the bus journey home being dominated by the phenomenon they had just witnessed.

“The difference was huge,” Baumgartl tells The Athletic.

“He had developed in every way. In 2020 his technique was not the best and we always took two players to deal with him. Me, the central defender, was behind him and the No 6 came in front so he couldn’t take you as a single player.

“When I faced him with Union he had learned to head, how to protect the ball, to shoot with his right and had developed even more physically.”

Union play with a back five and were attempting to deny him space behind but that allowed Dortmund to cross the ball and Haaland moved from Baumgartl onto his team-mates to head the second goal in.

“He moved behind me and that’s difficult to defend against as you can’t follow him everywhere so there is always a tiny bit of space between the defenders,” says Baumgartl.

“Robert Lewandowski is more of a penalty-box player but I think he learned a lot from him in that aspect.”

Haaland’s second goal of the match was sensational. It came late, after Baumgartl had gone off, but he won a footrace before lobbing the goalkeeper from the edge of the box while on the run.

“The problem is he didn’t take part in the game but you’re always thinking about him so the others get the space. Then you focus on them and move out of position, which is when he then finds the space.

“We were talking about what an incredible player he was. Even the guys who didn’t play said they saw how concentrated he was in the warm-up and how angry he was. We were sitting on the bus wondering how someone can be so good.”

Baumgartl stresses the need for the opposition goalkeeper to claim as many crossed balls as possible but in general play to also be positioned higher up to reduce the threat of through balls behind the centre-backs.

“Rudiger gave a good example with Real Madrid as he was so aggressive. I know Toni and he got on his nerves but in the end you can only do your best and try to interrupt his rhythm. There are always one or two actions he can score with.”

Any other advice for Inter’s defensive trio of Matteo Darmian, Francesco Acerbi and Alessandro Bastoni then?

“Just don’t let him get free”, says Javi Montero.

His laughter tells its own story.

Additional reporting from Tomas Hill Lopez-Menchero

(Header photos by Getty Images)



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