Nico Schlotterbeck recalls it as a defining afternoon in his career, a breakthrough Bundesliga fixture from just over a year ago. “It was when I realised how good I can be,” the defender proudly said of the day he marked Erling Haaland, when his then team Freiburg beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1, and, most importantly, Haaland was kept off the scoresheet.
It turned out that Dortmund had also found the young centre-back’s performance revealing. At the end of the season, once they were reconciled with the fact their outstanding young Norwegian striker would be the latest to move on from the club for a high profit, they reinvested €20 million of their Haaland dividend on signing Schlotterbeck from Freiburg.
He is only 22, rapidly establishing himself in the German national team and, as he told Sport Bild, still treasures that rare boast among defenders who have operated in the Bundesliga over the last two-and-a-half years: He kept Haaland quiet for 90 minutes. Indeed in three matches against Haaland – including two substitute appearances, one while on loan at Union Berlin – he has yet to witness a Haaland goal.
Now comes the hard part. If Haaland was a phenomenon in his coming-of-age Dortmund period – when he spread his 62 league goals, in 67 appearances, against 18 different clubs – in the Champions League, where Dortmund face City on Wednesday, he is even more prolific.
His brace against Sevilla last week, on his European debut for the English champions, elevated his tally to 25 in 20 matches. His total already for City, across competitions, stands at 12 goals from eight games.
That’s daunting form for Schlotterbeck, for the experienced Mats Hummels, who spent two-and-a-half years at Dortmund being bruised and outsprinted in training sessions by Haaland, and for the man-mountain Niklas Sule, who, newly signed by Dortmund from Bayern Munich, will remember feeling dwarfed by Haaland in their Bundesliga and cup collisions.
That trio will likely line up in a back three at the Etihad in front of second-choice goalkeeper Alex Meyer, who since he assumed the gloves from the injured Gregor Kobel, has been on the wrong side of a heavy defeat, 3-0 to RB Leipzig at the weekend.
That was one of a series of setbacks since Dortmund, a club with a fine tradition of developing young talents, said farewell to Haaland with City making the most persuasive case to the striker out of several potential buyers prepared to trigger his €60m release fee.
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Dortmund signed Sebastien Haller, from Ajax, as a replacement; Haller was then diagnosed with testicular cancer and, though hopeful of a full recovery, he will be out of action for several months.
Karim Adeyemi, the Germany international who, like the teenage Haaland had impressed at RB Salzburg, was also brought in. He has been hampered by injury. On transfer deadline day, Dortmund waved a sudden goodbye to centre-back Manuel Akanji, bought by City for €17m and among three players from the fabled Dortmund production line who could face their former club this evening.
The other is Ilkay Gundogan, whose Dortmund career coincided with the likes of Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Christian Pulisic, some of the many for whom the club has been a springboard.
Haaland, the latest gifted ex-Dortmund forward, has moved on with more immediate impact than any of those. “The numbers speak for themselves,” said Gundogan of 22-year-old Haaland’s ratio of a goal every 46 minutes for City in Premier League and Champions League.
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“The club have signed an incredible player on the pitch, and, with his character, determination and attitude off the pitch. For such a young boy, he is very mature and his future is very bright.”
Adapting from Bundesliga to Premier League, as Gundogan did after joining City as manager Pep Guardiola’s first personally-recommended signing in 2016, presents special challenges.
“It’s different and maybe the games against Dortmund will be more open than we have been used to here, where teams are defensively strong,” added Gundogan. “That is something to adapt to and Erling has already shown he can. It’s about patience and trying to punish other teams.”
As for the Champions League, where City and Dortmund share the early leadership of Group G, Haaland may well be the addition that propels City, finalists in 2021 and semi-finalists five months ago, to the prize that still eludes them. “We hope so,” Gundogan said. “Sometimes little details decide the outcome. Having a proper number nine is going to help us a lot.”