Joel Pohjanpalo was set a challenge before Bayer Leverkusen faced Hamburg on Saturday.
As the 21-year-old had his knee treated before the game, Leverkusen’s English physio Stuart Rickards told Pohjanpalo: “You need to score three today.”
That was going to take something special.
Sure, the Finnish international scored within two minutes after coming off the bench in Leverkusen’s 2-1 defeat to Gladbach two weeks ago, but he was a substitute again for the visit of Hamburg.
As it happened, Pohjanpalo would conjure up something remarkable. This time he won the game for Leverkusen with a 15-minute hat-trick – just what the physio ordered.
After the game you could spot Pohjanpalo by his rather large grin. “In my professional career, this is the best moment of my life,” he said.
It still wasn’t the quickest hat-trick of his career. That was in the Finnish top flight for HJK Helsinki back in April 2012 when he was just 17. Pohjanpalo fondly recalled that it took him just two minutes and forty-two seconds to score three that day.
Just a month earlier he’d been on a week-long trial at Liverpool and they liked what they saw. They offered him a full-time deal but the young Finn declined.
“It was a hard decision to reject Liverpool’s contract offer,” said Pohjanpalo back in 2012.
“HJK is a good club and there’s a great feeling in this group. I can, for example, call our assistant manager in my free time to come and play the ball. I’m sure it would not have been possible in Liverpool.”
Here is Joel Pohjanpalo's remarkable 15 minute hat-trick for Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday…plus outrageous skill. https://t.co/Heim2GehSc
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) September 12, 2016
Four years on Pohjanpalo is certainly seizing his first shot in a top European league.
After joining Leverkusen in 2013 he spent the last two-and-a-half years on loan in the second division. This year, coach Roger Schmidt decided against loaning him out again after he impressed in pre-season.
Pohjanpalo made the most of his 20-minute second-half cameo on Saturday to repay Schmidt’s faith. Just seven minutes after coming on, he brought Leverkusen level by heading into an open goal.
To the delight of the BayArena crowd, his confidence grew from there. They whooped at the striker’s audacity when he beat two Hamburg defenders with a spectacular double drag-back that even Zinedine Zidane would have admired.
The noise cranked up a notch in stoppage time when Pohjanpalo produced a sublime finish on the half volley to put Leverkusen ahead.
“It was a fantastic pass from Benni [Benjamin Henrichs] and it was a good finish I have to say,” he smirked afterwards.
“From then I knew, if the ball comes to me it doesn’t matter what I do – the ball will go in.”
That was indeed the case as the Finnish international completed his hat-trick in the fourth minute of injury time.
“Three goals from the picture book,” as his relieved coach Roger Schmidt put it.
Pohjanpalo’s fairy-tale afternoon was rounded off when he joined the Leverkusen fans in the Nordkurve to lead the celebrations.
“I don’t remember that much. There was too much adrenalin in my blood. The feeling was great.
“Hearing the fans shouting your name – there’s nothing better in football than that.”
He does remember that the fans were calling him ‘Danger’, the nickname the Finn picked up at Leverkusen’s pre-season training camp in Austria.
You can put that down to his resemblance to Daniel ‘Danger’ Becker, a character in German high school comedy film ‘Fack ju Göhte’.
You’re unlikely to have heard of that if you live outside of Germany but, with four goals in 30 Bundesliga minutes so far this season, Pohjanpalo is living up to the moniker.
Pohjanpalo accepts that his fantastic start doesn’t mean he’ll be an automatic selection in the first XI from now on.
“I’m maybe the last one in the pecking order,” he said, listing Javier Hernandez, Kevin Volland, Stefan Kiessling and Hakan Calhanoglu ahead of him.
That still seems a better position than he was in at Fortuna Düsseldorf, where Pohjanpalo spent the last two seasons on loan and scored just twice in his final campaign.
He was also fined by the club and suspended for a week in March after he was spotted in a nightclub at 3am. That didn’t go down well given that relegation threatened Fortuna had lost to Karlsruhe the night before, even if he had been an unused substitute.
“Everyone knows what happened in Fortuna last year. We had four coaches and it’s not an easy place to develop as a football player.
“It was a shame but sometimes it happens and I knew that I’m good enough for here.”
That much has been proven by Pohjanpalo, particularly with Saturday’s ‘lupenreiner Hattrick’ – a pure hat-trick in Germany.
For that to occur, you need to score three goals all in one half and without anyone else scoring in between. Leverkusen legend Ulf Kirsten was the last man to do that for the club in the Bundesliga in 1997.
Pohjanpalo was three years old when that happened but on Tuesday he turns 22. The following day will see CSKA Moscow visit the BayArena in the Champions League and, after his start to the campaign, the Russians will no doubt be aware of the ‘danger’ should Joel Pohjanpalo appear.
Bayern Munich won 2-0 on Friday night but it took the German champions until the final ten minutes to find a way past Schalke.
Afterwards, The Set Pieces caught up with Bayern’s World Cup-winning centre-back Mats Hummels, who praised coach Carlo Ancelotti for his half-time team-talk in Gelsenkirchen.
“He knows how to handle situations like at half time,” Hummels told The Set Pieces.
“He told us to be more way more patient, way more controlled [and] balanced, to control the game. He just knows what to say to the players when it doesn’t work on the pitch.”
Bayern were frustrated for long spells in Gelsenkirchen and nearly fell behind when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar smashed the Bayern crossbar a few minutes before the hour.
Late on, Robert Lewandowski eventually found the breakthrough with his sixth effort of the evening.
Lewandowski then played in substitute Joshua Kimmich to seal the win in injury time. It came just five days after the 21-year-old scored his first goal for Germany, having also impressed for his country at Euro 2016.
Hummels played alongside him there too and he spoke highly of his young team-mate.
“He’s a very talented player with a very good mentality. He’s one of those guys who’s always 100% in training and in the game,” said the former Dortmund captain.
“In every training, I think he’s the one who runs the most – not close, by far the most. He’s just a hard worker with a lot of talent, so that’s a great combination.”