Højlund can show England why Man United signed him over Kane

Mainoo: Ten Hag staying gives Man United squad peace of mind (0:23)

Kobbie Mainoo thanks Erik ten Hag for the trust he has shown in him at Manchester United. (0:23)

Rasmus Højlund wrote a note to himself as an eight-year-old titled "life aims" with a line at the bottom that read: "play for the Danish national team and Manchester United."

He's arrived at Euro 2024 not only with those goals ticked off, but having become the face of the future for both club and country. United are trying to build a younger team around Højlund, but also Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo. Højlund is key for Denmark, too.

The international careers of Christian Eriksen (32), Kasper Schmeichel (37) and Simon Kjaer (35) are coming to an end and it's the job of 21-year-old Højlund, Morten Hjulmand (24) and Victor Kristiansen (21) to spearhead a new era.

It comes with its own specific pressure. There are questions around every corner, and it will be the same when Denmark face England on Thursday. What if, for example, United had signed Harry Kane instead of Højlund last summer? And will the Dane one day be as good as the England captain? For many United fans, the two will be forever linked -- the proven goal scorer they wanted in the summer of 2023 and the player they hope will become one.

Sources have told ESPN that United were interested enough in Kane to have conversations with his representatives and with his club, Tottenham Hotspur. He was the first choice of United manager Erik ten Hag, but there was a feeling that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy would drag out negotiations until the final days of the transfer window and the Old Trafford hierarchy were not prepared to risk the deal falling through at the last minute. There were concerns, too, about personal terms with one United executive telling ESPN that Kane wanted "Cristiano money," in reference to the huge pay packet handed to Cristiano Ronaldo to bring him back to the club in 2021.

With Kane no longer a possibility, the recruitment team began to look elsewhere. They were told by Brighton & Hove Albion that Evan Ferguson wasn't available and didn't think Ollie Watkins was worth the £70 million being quoted by Aston Villa. The list was eventually whittled down to Højlund and Eintracht Frankfurt striker Randal Kolo Muani. United liked Muani but decided he would find it difficult to adapt to the Premier League. On top of that, scouts reported that Muani liked to drop into deeper positions and United wanted more of a No. 9 profile. That left Højlund.

Atalanta initially wanted £90m for Højlund, and football director John Murtough and chief of football negotiations Matt Hargreaves had to sit at the Italian club's Bortolotti Training Centre from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. until an agreement was reached for around £64m, plus another £8m in add-ons.

Kane scored 44 goals in his first season at Bayern Munich but United remain convinced they did the right thing. There's an acceptance among coaching staff at Carrington that Højlund needs to work on his linkup play, but there is a belief that 10 Premier League goals and 16 in all competitions represents a good return for his debut season in England.

Signing for United has catapulted Højlund to worldwide fame, but United scouts were sure he could handle the attention having been impressed with his character and personality during their background checks. Their reports also noted his dedication. There was a point while he was growing up that he became so good at swimming he had to choose between that and football. His decision to stick with football paid off and aged 12 he joined Brøndby's youth set up. His football development was helped by his dad building an underground pitch at their home in Copenhagen so Højlund and his twin younger brothers, Emil and Oscar, could continue to play even during Denmark's snowy winters.

Højlund moved to FC Copenhagen in 2020, but after 18 months he began growing concerned that he wasn't getting enough games. So, in January 2022, he joined Sturm Graz in Austria, a decision partly influenced by data that suggested the high number of transitions in the Austrian league would suit his game. Again, it paid off and after 12 goals in 21 games he was on the move again, this time to Atalanta.

United first became aware of Højlund while he was at Copenhagen and could have signed him from Sturm Graz for £12m before he joined Atalanta. But it was the way he dealt with the step up in quality in Italy that convinced United and from September 2022, they had scouts at every one of his games.

His first season at Old Trafford wasn't without its struggles, but even through barren spells in front of goal -- he didn't score a league goal until late December -- or his long injury layoff in February and March, he kept smiling. He has leaned on Ten Hag's forwards coach, Benni McCarthy, for advice, and often stayed out after training to practice his shooting. He's also been keen to sit down with analysts to review his performances, both good and bad.

Shortly after Højlund signed for United, a club source told ESPN they "had no idea what he might turn into." Their feeling, though, was that his potential was so high that it was worth taking a risk even during a summer when Kane was available, a proven goal scorer over nearly a decade with only Alan Shearer having scored more in the Premier League.

Having faced each other already in the Champions League when United met Bayern last season, Kane and Højlund will go head to head again when England meet Denmark in Frankfurt on Thursday. The player United might have signed against the one they chose instead. Whatever the outcome they believe they picked well and that their future is bright, in part, because Højlund is in it.