This isn’t how it was meant to go.
When those that covered football were looking towards the future last summer there was one prospect that people kept coming back to. There was this theory around a rivalry in Spain that could try to get close to what we saw between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
For all sorts of reason the proposed dynamic between Kylian Mbappe and Erling Haaland didn’t happen. Perhaps in 2024 or 2025 things may look different for all parties but for now that scenario is dead in the water.
Instead, quite unexpectedly, Liverpool might have created something else, a different kind of rivalry, but one that will be equally compelling to watch.
The purchase of Uruguay forward Darwin Nunez from Benfica has come out of the blue. Allow us to explain. Liverpool weren’t expected to be big players in the market, rather, most fans and journalists predicted more incremental transfers that gradually upgraded the quality and depth of the squad.
But with Sadio Mane likely to leave to Bayern Munich, and Mohamed Salah still without a new contract, Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp have decided to act. Much like Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool clearly feel that a massive outlay on Nunez is worth it because of the quality he will bring to the team both in the short-term and the long-term.
Nunez is far closer to Alisson in where he is in his career. Alisson, who is now one of the three best goalkeepers in the world, still had to work despite some excellent showings with Roma. Nunez is far from the finished product, but after watching the development of Mane, Salah and Diogo Jota he has to be excited about what Klopp and his coaching staff can do for him.
However no one could argue that he is as far along in his career as the man he will soon be endlessly compared with: Haaland. The Norwegian had been linked with a move to Spain but after some dallying Manchester City swooped and brought in the striker that every fan has been crying out for their club to sign. Haaland scored an astonishing 86 goals in 89 games for Borussia Dortmund and established himself as the best young forward in the world aside from Mbappe.
Now he gets the chance to test himself in a tougher situation, but with superior players and coaching staff around him. Haaland may well move to Spain at some point later in his future, but for now he’s the Premier League’s problem. He will instantly become one of the favourites for the Golden Boot and Player of the Year awards and is seen by many as the missing piece who could finally push City over the top in the Champions League. Nunez won’t have quite the same pressures put on him from the start but given the price tag involved it won’t be too long for the mutters and doubts to start if the goals don’t start flowing.
And you can be certain that if the goals do take a little while to come, fans will gleefully deride Liverpool for paying considerably more for Nunez over Haaland, while conveniently ignoring the fact that the Norwegian had a release clause and commanded far more in wages than his Uruguayan counterpart.
In an ideal world Nunez adjusts quicker than expected, after all this is someone who scored 26 goals in Portugal last year and 11 in the last two seasons in Europe. A fast adjustment would result in a real rivalry developing between him and Haaland, something the Premier League desperately needs.
Because of the varied nature of the positions of the best players in the league, there is no real rivalry that provokes great debate across those who watch the sport. Salah and Kevin De Bruyne were the two frontrunners for the Premier League Player of the Year award but play totally different positions. Harry Kane and Ronaldo were the top-scoring strikers but played in totally different positions, with the former often dropping deeper to become an advanced, and hard-to-mark, playmaker. In fact one of the more intense debate is about who the best right-back in the league is. To paraphrase Gary Neville, that’s not what anyone wants.
Nunez and Haaland will embody their managers in this rivalry. Haaland barely gives anything to the media and Nunez is unlikely to say anything controversial until his English is very solid. The rivalry between Liverpool and City is built off the fans, it’s not pumped up by the managers to the same degree as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho or Rafa Benitez used to (not that Pep Guardiola and Klopp are against the occasional stoking of the fire). It’s driven by the supporters who clearly hate each other and are fuelled by the adrenaline created by the success of both sides.
Salah v De Bruyne, Dias v Van Dijk, Cancelo/Walker v Alexander-Arnold/Robertson and Alisson v Ederson will be nothing compared to Haaland v Nunez. Throw in Tottenham Hotspur captain Harry Kane and you have an opportunity for three truly world-class strikers to do battle. One of the last proper battles between three top class players was in the 2015-16 season when Kane (25) edged out Sergio Aguero and Jamie Vardy (both on 24) for the golden boot. Salah’s fight with Son Heung-min and Kane over the past couple of seasons have been fun, but there’s something about strikers going at it that makes it that more exciting.
Born just 11 months apart, these two contemporaries could shape the next few years of the Premier League, particularly as some of the current stars enter their 30s. For the neutral it is going to be absolutely fascinating to watch.