The comparison seems unfair now, and would be for any player in world football, but it is only three months since Erling Haaland v Darwin Núñez was billed as the duel that could shape another title race between Manchester City and Liverpool. A simplistic prediction, true, although with one team flying and the other yet to take off, in keeping with the impact of their big-money summer signings, it is not entirely wide of the mark.
To pin Liverpool’s inconsistent campaign on Núñez would be also unfair, and inaccurate, even accounting for the red card for violent conduct on the striker’s Anfield debut that stalled his integration for three matches. The Uruguay international has four goals in 10 appearances for Liverpool; by no means a shabby return for a forward in a new club, league and country where he does not understand the language. Jürgen Klopp’s instructions are relayed via Portuguese-speaking members of the coaching staff, because of his time at Benfica: the assistant manager Pep Lijnders and elite development coach Vitor Matos. They are sinking in gradually.
The 23-year-old scored for the second successive game in Liverpool’s 7-1 humiliation of Rangers in the Champions League on Wednesday, when Roberto Firmino maintained his impressive form and Mohamed Salah rediscovered his in front of goal. Confidence, one of the issues that Klopp has faced this season, should not be a concern among Liverpool’s strikers when City visit on Sunday. Núñez’s movement, work rate and link-up play have impressed in recent games. The £64m signing – whose fee could rise to a club record £85m – scored on his Liverpool debut when they beat City 3-1 in the Community Shield in July. Having since been eclipsed by the phenomenon that is Haaland – who hasn’t been? – Anfield would be the perfect stage to make another statement against Pep Guardiola’s team.
The instruction from Klopp is to forget any Haaland competition and concentrate on his job. “Let me say it like this,” the Liverpool manager said of Núñez’s start. “I think Darwin Núñez would have scored a couple more goals if he had played in the centre of Man City this season. He would be a pretty good striker for them as well, finishing the situations off. We have to improve our game to bring him more often in these situations.
“I don’t know, but I hope he is not in a process where he compares himself with Erling Haaland. I think he is really making steps here. You could see it in his face that his goal [against Rangers] was really important for him. All the goals are really important, obviously, but maybe it was looking like someone had closed the opportunity for him, like the goalie brings his hand on it or a foot on it, and then everybody says you have to finish differently. But look at the goal for Bobby [Firmino] from Joey’s [Gomez] pass. He could put it in each corner but didn’t; he just hits the ball and it goes through the keeper’s legs. That’s what happens sometimes with a striker.
“When it is running for you, the ball goes through the keeper’s legs. When it’s not running, you hit the foot or the hand of the goalie and it goes wide. The first chance for Mo, chip from Thiago [Alcântara] in behind and Mo doesn’t hit the ball properly. If he hits it a little bit better then the ball rolls in the goal. You need these moments. But don’t compare. I hope he is not doing that and doesn’t think about that. I don’t see that. We are in our situation and we want to sort our situation and that is all we are concerned about.”
Klopp was asked about Haaland five times in his pre-City press conference on Friday. He is sometimes irked by a repeated line of questioning, certainly one relating to the opposition, but the exceptional goalscorer proved an exception. There was lavish praise for a player with 20 goals in his first 13 appearances for City.
“When you play against the best striker in the world you have to make sure he doesn’t get too many balls,” said Klopp when outlining Liverpool’s approach on Sunday. “That is what you have to defend before you come into the challenge with him, but against City the problem is if you close down Haaland with too many players then you open up gaps for all the other world-class players they have. That will not make life easier.
“Erling combines so many things. It is rare that you have his finishing skills, that are obviously exceptional, but he moves really smart as well and that makes him tricky. Physically he sets new standards, the combination of being really physical and technical and sensational awareness, his orientation on the pitch is exceptional, he knows always where the decisive gaps are, he is barely offside, reads that really well: so many things that make him a striker. The package makes him special.
“Then you have some of the best players in the world around him at City in setting up goals and finding the right moments for the passes. Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gündogan, Bernardo Silva, [Riyad] Mahrez, Phil Foden; they are all really good at that so that makes him a perfect fit.”