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CHRIS WHEELER: Lisandro Martinez takes on challenge to stop Erling Haaland

Erling Haaland has been in brilliant form for Manchester City since arriving at the Etihad
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In the red corner Lisandro Martinez. In the blue corner Erling Haaland. On the face of it, it looks like a mismatch that could potentially decide Sunday’s Manchester derby at the Etihad.

Haaland has overwhelmed Premier League defense since joining City for £51.2million, scoring 11 goals in his first seven games. Throw in the Champions League and it’s 14 out of nine.

At 6ft 4in, he also towers seven inches over Martinez. However, the tape’s story doesn’t tell the full story of United’s new £55.3million defender. Martinez is the shortest centre-back in the Premier League at 1.77m but he makes up for it with his tenacity and understanding of the game.

Erling Haaland has been in brilliant form for Manchester City since arriving at the Etihad

Erling Haaland has been in brilliant form for Manchester City since arriving at the Etihad

The duel between Lisandro Martinez and Haaland could decide the Manchester derby

The duel between Lisandro Martinez and Haaland could decide the Manchester derby

The 24-year-old has faced questions about his size since being sacked by his youth team Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina. It’s a touchy subject and he’s tired of discussing it.

Martinez prefers to be judged on his track record. He made his name at Defensa y Justicia in Buenos Aires before moving to Holland.

When Ajax met Borussia Dortmund in the group stage of the Champions League last season, Martinez had Haaland in the bag as the Dutch won 4-0 in Amsterdam. The hard-hitting Norwegian missed the second leg with a hip injury, which Ajax won 3-1.

Haaland tries to dribble past Martinez, who played for Dortmund against Ajax last season

Haaland tries to dribble past Martinez, who played for Dortmund against Ajax last season

Erik ten Hag described his new Netherlands centre-back as a

Erik ten Hag described his new Netherlands centre-back as a “warrior” in the Red Devils’ defence

Erik ten Hag’s game plan with Ajax was to put pressure on Dortmund’s midfield to cut off Haaland’s supplies. Whenever the ball got to him, Martinez would dive in to knock it off his opponent’s toes or prevent him from turning. It worked.

Haaland had three of Dortmund’s four shots on goal and even forced goalkeeper Remko Pasveer to shoot at the crossbar. But by his standards it was a very quiet night.

After that, Ten Hag made it a point to congratulate Martinez in front of his teammates in the dressing room. The United boss would certainly settle for a replay on Sunday after taking Martinez to Old Trafford this summer and beating Arsenal to sign his old player.

He describes Martinez as “a warrior” and there’s no doubt he fits the mold of a typical Argentine enforcer. His nickname at Ajax, the butcher of Amsterdam, was well deserved. Height was not an issue for Martinez either, as he dropped more headers than any of his teammates last season. He also averaged more passes than any other player in the Dutch league last season.

Pep Guardiola's side have had a successful start to the season and are second in the league

Pep Guardiola’s side have had a successful start to the season and are second in the league

“In Argentina we are very passionate about what we do,” says Martinez. “When we play football, we do it for the food of our families, our friends, our girlfriends. Every ball is a matter of life or death. They gave me the nickname, but I’m not someone who flies in, I’d rather play more.

Raised in modest circumstances in the city of Gualeguay, where his family could sometimes only afford one meal a day, Martinez’s father, Raul, took him to a construction site from an early age.

“You see, son, this isn’t for you,” he said. “You have to keep fighting for your dream.” Martinez forgot that during the difficult early days away from home at Newell’s Old Boys when he was 14.

The Norwegian superstar has scored 11 Premier League goals in seven games for City

The Norwegian superstar has scored 11 Premier League goals in seven games for City

At Ajax, he recalled “feeling like going home and crying” after struggling to adjust to the pace and intensity of training. Making his international debut for Argentina, Martinez came on as a half-time substitute against Venezuela in Madrid.

Each time, he used adversity and criticism to come back stronger. An avid football student obsessed with developing his talent, he even watched the eight-year-olds train at Ajax to immerse himself in the club’s principles. He has tried meditation and yoga for self-improvement.

Strength of character was certainly called for during a hot start at United. After making his debut in the opening day defeat by Brighton, Martinez was ecstatic at half-time after the horrendous 4-0 defeat at Brentford, raising further questions about his size and suitability for English football.

Martinez's strong defense has helped Ten Hag's side climb to fifth place in the Premier League

Martinez’s strong defense has helped Ten Hag’s side climb to fifth place in the Premier League

Ten Hag kept the faith, dropping Harry Maguire in place of Martinez and playing him alongside Raphael Varane.

United have won all five games with this partnership. Martinez was Man of the Match against Liverpool, defeating Arsenal’s in-form Gabriel Jesus.

Voted September’s United Player of the Month, he has become something of a cult figure among fans chanting ‘Argentina, Argentina’ as if to his idol, Gabriel Heinze.

Now he faces his biggest test so far in Haaland’s first Manchester derby. It’s a tall order, but Lisandro Martinez was always up for the challenge.

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