Atalanta striker Rasmus Hojlund has named former Manchester United defender Chris Smalling as the toughest opponent he has faced so far.
Hojlund is currently being linked with a move to Man Utd after his breakthrough season at Atalanta, just one year on from initially joining the Italian club. The 20-year-old only left his native Denmark in January last year, joining Austrian side Sturm Graz for the second half of the 2021/22 campaign.
In Austria, Hojlund played 21 times for Sturm Graz across all competitions, scoring 12 goals to help them finish second in the table as start the 2022/23 campaign off well before his performances caught the eyes of Atalanta.
Signed by Sturm Graz for just under €2million, Hojlund was sold to Atalanta last year in a deal worth €17m, bring a profit of €15m in just six months such was his growth and promise. After two starts in his first two Serie A games, with one goal, Hojlund then had to fit for his spot in the Atalanta team, and really came to life in 2023.
After the league returned from its World Cup and winter break, Hojlund scored eight goals in 21 Serie A matches in addition to one assist as Atalanta finished fifth in the table, sealing Europa League football.
According to reports, Hojlund has caught the eye of a number of European clubs with Man Utd opening initial talks with Atalanta for the Dane in June, with further claims in Italy suggesting that a bid worth £31m has since been rejected. Hojlund himself recently said: “It is a huge club, so I must have done something right if it’s rumoured they want me. We have to see what happens,” while his trainer has shared a video of the 20-year-old training with the caption: “We ready for what’s next.”
And now further fuel has been added to the fire, with perhaps a bit of a tease for Man Utd fans, with Hojlund dubbing former Red Devils defender Smalling as his toughest opponent so far.
“Chris Smalling from Roma gave me the biggest problems,” he told Tuttosport.
“He’s an intelligent, agile, fast, physically strong defender. I tried to win duels with him by using my physical strength, but it wasn’t the winning move. I still have to find the right key to overcome it.”
Hojlund and Smalling went head-to-head in Atalanta’s 1-0 win over Roma back in September, with the Dane setting up the winner in the first half, before being taken off at half-time. While Hojlund may have got the better of Smalling with regards to the result, he didn’t have a single shot in his 45 minutes and lost all four of his duels. Smalling, meanwhile, won all four of his duels across the game on top of three interceptions and three clearances.
Since the start of the 2021/22 season, Smalling has won 218 of his 300 duels contested in Serie A, a success rate of 72.7%. In that same time frame a total of 1,537 players have contested 200+ duels in Europe’s top five leagues with no player having a better success rate than Smalling — Virgil van Dijk comes in at second with 71.6%.