Forget Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, the real star of the opening round of games in this season’s Champions League was Sebastien Haller, who scored four times for Ajax in their 5-1 thumping of Sporting in Portugal.
It was a remarkable Champions League debut for the 27-year-old Ivory Coast striker, the first player to score four goals in his maiden appearance in European football’s flagship club competition since Marco van Basten for AC Milan against IFK Goteburg in 1992.
“I remember when Marco van Basten did it, and he is one of the greatest players in the history of the game,” said Ajax coach Erik ten Hag.
“That proves how historic a performance it is from Sebastien, but it is also a reflection of his qualities.
“It’s not just his physique but also his positioning and his finishing, and you also need to be really strong mentally to be able to do that.”
Haller’s first two goals in Lisbon came from inside the six-yard box in the opening nine minutes. He added two more in the second half from a fraction further out.
That poaching ability is exactly why Ajax spent 22.5 million euros ($27.5m) to bring Haller back to the Netherlands from West Ham United in January, but Haller had something of an inauspicious start to his career in Amsterdam.
Ajax somehow forgot to register their new recruit for last season’s Europa League knockout phase. Had he been available they might have beaten Roma in the quarter-finals. Instead they went out.
Haller did score 11 times in the Eredivisie in the second half of last season as Ajax romped to the title.
And he has started this season averaging a goal a game in an Ajax team that can’t stop scoring -– their first six Eredivisie outings featured three 5-0 wins and one 9-0 victory.
It is something of a turnaround in fortunes for a player who cost West Ham a club record £45 million (50 million euros) from Eintracht Frankfurt in 2019 but scored just 10 times in 48 Premier League games.
He previously starred in Frankfurt alongside the likes of Ante Rebic and Luka Jovic, who went on to AC Milan and Real Madrid respectively.
Before that Haller made his name in the Dutch league at Utrecht, scoring over 50 goals in three years, so Ajax knew exactly what they were getting.
Meanwhile France, even with such attacking strength in depth, might regret missing out.
Haller was born and brought up in the Paris suburbs and played for France all the way up to Under-21 level.
However, having reached the age of 26 without getting the call from Didier Deschamps, he opted to represent the Ivory Coast instead when the country of his mother’s birth contacted him last year.
“There comes a time when you need to make a decision, look at the competition in your position and be honest with yourself,” he told So Foot magazine last year of his decision.
“When I scored my first goal on my first cap against Madagascar, it was really something. I was so happy.”
Haller recently scored both goals in a World Cup qualifying win against Cameroon and will hope to represent the Ivory Coast at the Africa Cup of Nations in the new year.
First he will be hoping to keep his remarkable Champions League goal-scoring record going when Ajax host Besiktas on Tuesday.
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