Richard Buxton: EPL dress rehearsal for Jules Kounde, Erling Haaland?
Dortmund's Haaland and Sevilla's Kounde are in demand by English clubs
Erling Haaland has yet to truly meet his match in club football's greatest stage.
Restricting Borussia Dortmund's tour de force striker requires a composite set of skills as he continues to redefine the standards for modern marksmen. In the Champions League, he has the best all-time goal average of any player to surpass double figures.
Haaland plunders a goal every 56 minutes in the continent's elite club competition and has recorded 23 in as many games for Dortmund overall this season.
Defenders willing to rise to the challenge of stopping him need to possess ice-cold levels of composure and near-flawless technical ability to rival that personal apex. Plenty have tried but ultimately failed, including Liverpool's totemic Virgil van Dijk.
Such a moment of reckoning, however, could finally arrive as Dortmund do battle with Sevilla in their Round-of-16, first-leg showdown tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
Spain's frying pan will play host to a fiercely anticipated duel between its prime emerging attacker and centre-back, as Haaland, 20, goes head-to-head with Jules Kounde, 22.
The pair are already attracting envious glances from more well-heeled clubs than their existing ones, with the English Premier League representing a viable future destination.
Haaland's appeal to potential suitors remains well-documented, but it is easy to see why Kounde is now fast appearing on the radars of various teams; Sevilla reportedly rejected a 55 million euro (S$88.4m) bid from Manchester City just last summer.
Real Madrid, similarly, must rue spurning the offer of first refusal on the France Under-21 international during negotiations over Oscar Rodriguez's eventual move to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan around the same time as the EPL champions-elect's approach.
Julen Lopetegui may be forgiven for affording himself a wry smile at his one-time employers' folly, after sacrificing his own dream of leading Spain at the 2018 World Cup for the sake of spending little more than three months in the Bernabeu's furnace.
Had he spent longer in the country's capital rather than the Andalusian epicentre, Lopetegui would undoubtedly have lined up Kounde as Sergio Ramos' natural successor.
At both ends of the pitch, he has been integral to Los Nervionenses stringing together a nine-game winning run in all competitions in the prelude to their Dortmund encounter.
Last week, he channelled the spirit of Diego Maradona with a slaloming run from deep in his own half to open the scoring in their Copa del Rey semi-final, first-leg win over Barcelona.
Dayot Upamecano's defection to Bayern Munich - confirmed ahead of RB Leipzig's clash with Juergen Klopp's side this morning - has cleared the way for Kounde to assume the mantle of the game's most sought-after defensive option when the market reopens.
A footballing who's who are aiming to land Upamecano's compatriot. Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain and Real are all credited with interest. Haaland, too, remains in demand amid claims City, the Red Devils and Chelsea are in the hunt.
Subduing last year's Golden Boy winner across two legs would not only strengthen Kounde's credentials for a senior call-up for France in the run-up to Euro 2020, but also convince Europe's great and good that he is worth taking an eight-figure gamble on.
If he and Haaland are destined for the English top flight next season, they can lay down a marker for what promises to become a highly fascinating individual contest.