It is a path less travelled, let alone as quickly, a journey from FC Copenhagen to Sturm Graz, Atalanta to Manchester United, all before his 21st birthday. It was the culmination of an ambition, too, for a boyhood United fan, the realisation of a dream.
And yet there were points in a reunion where Rasmus Hojlund could be forgiven for wondering if he had been better off staying put. Not financially, admittedly, with the rewards that come with a £72m price tag, but from a footballing perspective. The more coherent team were Copenhagen, the low-budget overachievers seeming to have more of a plan than the high-budget overachievers but it was tempting to think that if the Danish champions could still call upon their most valuable old boy, they would have won at Old Trafford.
Instead, United were victorious, aided by a telling intervention by a Dane. It wasn’t Hojlund, though that is no criticism: there are times when he is the brightest of United’s front three simply a process of excellence but here, as against Galatasaray, it was a consequence of excellence. But it was his compatriot Christian Eriksen who curled in a cross that Harry Maguire converted. Which, along with Andre Onana’s 97th-minute penalty save from Jordan Larsson, averted indignity. Which a draw would have been, given the gulf in resources between the clubs.
Hojlund is proof of it. But as his former club, who had led against Galatasaray and Bayern Munich, came within a few inches of going ahead at Old Trafford, there were times when Hojlund had to stand and admire. In different ways, his younger brothers Oscar, a late substitute for Copenhagen, and Emil, who did not make the bench, were spectators. So was the older and more expensive sibling, limited to two touches in the first quarter of an hour, left stranded by United’s impotence.
Yet, with the notable exception of Maguire’s decider, everything they did right thereafter in attack revolved around him. Which, in itself, may have been an indictment of others. Pivotal as centre-forwards can be, United looked over-reliant on one whose name, this time last year, may have simply seemed a failed attempt to spell Haaland.
And the Norwegian, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had been keen to point out, was a player he advised United to sign for £4m, five years before they got Hojlund for 18 times as much. But in the Hojlund derby, the forward United did get to show a sharpness. He came alive in the final third in a manner to suggest that his teammates needed to give him more of the ball.
After that uneventful first 15 minutes, he rifled a half-volley over the bar. His backheel almost released Scott McTominay to shoot. He teed up Eriksen when his fellow Dane had a shot well saved. When an offside Marcus Rashford was brought down by goalkeeper Kamil Grabara, he had raced on to Hojlund’s pass. When Alejandro Garnacho came close, it was because Hojlund led a break.
When Elias Jelert was required to clear off his line, it was because Hojlund met Bruno Fernandes’ header with a deft piece of chest control. It was a sign of resourcefulness, an ability to make something out of nothing. Which, at times, was just as well, given his supply line.
Neither winger is a crosser. Antony, as even those who have spent decades stranded on tiny islands in the Pacific Ocean know, will try and cut inside and shoot with his left foot. Rashford, too, has designs on being more of a scorer than a supplier. Hojlund spent some of the first half acting as the creator for McTominay, the ungainly auxiliary No 10.
But United had more footballing craft with Eriksen on. He is the technician while Hojlund’s physical attributes form part of his appeal. He has got a wiry strength. He is a rangy runner with a turn of pace. He has an eager willingness that stands him in good stead. The raw materials are there. Yet the concern is that too few signings have improved at United in the last decade; it is just a coincidence of negotiating that Hojlund’s fee is very similar to Jadon Sancho’s but the exiled winger is proof United’s best-laid plans can go wrong.
The feeling at Old Trafford now is that Hojlund has a high ceiling: higher even than Randal Kolo Muani, another on their summer striking shortlist and who ended up costing Paris Saint-Germain more. Thus far, he has a relatively low goal return: just three in 10 games for United.
For both his first and current clubs, he has been more prolific in Europe. He never scored in the Danish Superliga. He has not struck in the Premier League, either: outscored by Diogo Dalot on domestic duty, his goals have been confined to Europe. Yet he kicked off as the Champions League’s joint top scorer, the product of a strike against Bayern and a brace against Galatasaray.
Even as he drew a blank against Copenhagen, Hojlund added to the impression that he belongs on this stage. But as United laboured to victory, they scarcely offered compelling evidence they will still be in the Champions League after Christmas.
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