BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
THE Babyfaced Assassin reckons there is new Norwegian superstar ready to shoot down Hibs.
Molde boss Ole Gunnar Solksjaer has backed 18-year-old wonderkid Erling Braut Haaland to shrug off uncertainty over his future when he leads the line at Easter Road on Thursday night.
Haaland, the son of former Leeds and Manchester City ace Alf-Inge, is the second-top scorer in the Norwegian top-flight and is currently weighing up a contract from Salzburg after a £6 million bid was accepted.
That deal would make him the most expensive export from the Eliteserien in history, usurping John Carew. Barcelona and Manchester United have also dispatched scouts to track his progress.
And Old Trafford hero Solskjaer expects Haaland, who has scored eight goals in 14 league matches this term, to reach the very top – insisting the teenager is far better than he was at that age.
“Erland [Haaland] is here in Scotland and will be involved,” said Solskjaer. “We have accepted a bid and he is chewing on a contract offer from them, but he is one of my players at the moment.
“He is many years ahead of where I was when I was 18, I was nowhere near Erland’s level. He has the hunger, the ability and the attitude to go all the way in football. I have worked with him for a year-and-a-half and the development in him has been unbelievable.
“He was a mature 16-year-old at first – now he is a man at 18 and ready to go to bigger clubs.
“He has been absolutely brilliant through all this and I think that comes from his heritage. When you have a dad who has represented Leeds and [Manchester] City and played for his country so many times, it is the right upbringing. Nothing fazes him.”
Among those charged with shackling the rampant Haaland will be Hibs skipper David Gray, who was captain of the Manchester United reserve side when the Norway legend was cutting his teeth in coaching at Old Trafford.
It will be a fond reunion for the 45-year-old, even if he remains determined to ensure his old protege endures a miserable evening.
“Good old David was a brilliant player to coach and has had a brilliant career,” he smiled. “He turned things around when he came on at half-time against Asteras Tripolis [at 2-0 down]!
“He’s just a top lad and a very good player. He captained my reserve team and was one of my favourites, a guy you want in your team every day of the week – but we need to make things hard for him.”
Solksjaer is similarly enthused by the prospect of renewing hostilities with Hibs head coach Neil Lennon, having crossed swords during their respective days at Leicester City and United – and once in the dugout.
“When Neil [Lennon] came in he said the Hibs players needed toughening up and he has done that,” he praised. “That is no surprise as he was a fiery player – and a very good player.
“He was manager at Bolton when I was at Cardiff too, so I’ve beaten him once and I’m looking for that statistic to continue.”
And, with a mouth-watering tie against either Dinamo Minsk or Russian superpower Zenit St-Petersburg awaiting the winner of the tie, Solksjaer has no desire to downplay the importance of the clash.
He added: “This is the highlight of the season for many of our players – getting the opportunity to face different teams, different cultures and our aim is to get into the group stage. This is a huge game for me, the club and the squad.”