Antonio Rudiger challenges Erling Haaland during the UEFA Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Manchester City at Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, May 2023.

Antonio Rudiger has shown us how to stop Haaland; be very, very weird

Erling Haaland has laid waste to domestic and continental defences this season, scoring 50 goals and rendering opponents less relevant than firefighters trying to tackle King Kong – but Real Madrid’s Antonio Rudiger may have shown everybody how to stop him.

As well as being an elite defender, Rudiger has carefully cultivated his reputation as the most peculiar guy in Christendom over the years.

Whether it’s wearing socks on his ears, keeping an ant colony in his bedroom or using an actual World Cup game to stage his own Monty Python homage, the centre-back resorts to his own unique methods to bury himself rent-free in the subconscious of opposing strikers.

This made him the perfect man to stop Haaland. City’s star striker is kooky in his own way – with his love of Peppa Pig sweets, goth eyeliner and impersonating John Stones – but nothing on the scale of Rudiger.

As a high-quality Champions League semi-final took place around them, Rudiger’s laser-beam focus was Haaland.

His man-marking was so complete that, not only did the Norweigan goal-scoring giant have just 21 touches, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Rudiger slept outside his hotel room the night before.

As the ball was caressed between the feet of world-class operators nearby, Rudiger decided to crouch down and stick his head underneath Haaland’s armpit.

Looking as puzzled as Nadine Dorries on Mastermind, Haaland removed his arm only to find his nemesis had wriggled his way to nestle under the other one.

Numerous attempts to swat Rudiger away like a troublesome fly at a picnic were to no avail; Haaland’s concentration had been breached and the Madrid defender had won a crucial moral victory.

“We got the goal a bit late so we feel a bit like we could have got out with more,” an understandably bullish Rudiger told beIN Sports after the game. “But it’s no problem, the tie is definitely on and we can go with confidence to Manchester.

“At the end of the day they were not dangerous. They had possession, we knew that this would happen… but most importantly they were not dangerous. Obviously their goal was quality from De Bruyne.”

Rudiger was then asked by the interviewer whether he was confident his team could finish the job at the Etihad Stadium. “We are Real Madrid. We are always confident,” he said.

“An interesting game,” Carlo Ancelotti said during his post-match interview. “It was difficult for us in all the first half and the second half was much better. We had good control of the game.

“When they had lots of possession we were in control defensively, then when we started to play the ball we caused difficulties. We had to keep our positions defensively, then when we got the opportunity, we scored the first goal.

“The feeling is good. We competed and we fought. We raised our game well and we have good feelings. The result did not reward us, but it is a tie that will be even until the last minute.

“Man City will feel that they are favourites, but we think we are. We don’t have the fans (for the second leg), but we have them in our hearts.”

And Ancelotti showered Rudiger with praise after keeping Haaland quieter than a country mouse that’s taken a vow of silence.

“Toni Rudiger… excellent,” he said when asked to assess the Germany international’s display. “Top performance. He was very good, he’s a player with great experience, quality.

“It wasn’t easy but he played very well. I’m so happy with Toni.”

As he boards the flight back to Manchester, double-checking Rudiger hadn’t smuggled his way into his hand luggage, Haaland had shown a rare chink of human weakness.

The battle between him and Rudiger next week will almost certainly decide which continental juggernaut goes into the final. We can barely wait.

By Michael Lee

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