For many, there was only one star in Barcelona’s win over Elche in their first league outing of the season: Lionel Messi. With Enrique opting to play an inexperienced side, which saw six La Masia graduates start alongside each other, the Argentine led by example, scoring a brace as the Blaugrana ran away with a comfortable 3-0 win at home.
Following a disappointing 2013/14 season, it was hailed as the 27-year-old’s return to form, a pure master class which evoked the memories of the past. However, it would be foolish to neglect the exploits of a certain Munir El-Haddadi, whose performance has finally put him under the spotlight.
Luis Enrique’s return to Barcelona, following previous spells as a player then later coach for Barcelona “B” team, was met with jubilation; his arrival was always going to be beneficial for youth players. With their proud history of youth development, the promotion of promising talents into the first team is, essentially, what separates this club from the rest.
With Alexis sold to Arsenal, Luis Suarez banned until late October after biting yet again and Neymar recovering from both a back and ankle injury, it seemed the next chapter in Munir’s career could not have been written any better. And the young attacker has proved his worth.
Throughout the pre-season, in the absence of the club’s World Cup stars, the 18-year-old shone and finished as top-scorer with four goals from five matches. Such imperious form meant that, without Suarez and Neymar, Enrique had little choice but to play the starlet in their season opener. His impact was, arguably, greater than that of Messi – his work rate and ceaseless harassment of Elche’s defence out on the wing set up the conditions for the four-time Ballon d’Or winner to work his magic. Munir’s exploits were duly rewarded as he too got on the scoresheet to cap off a memorable debut.
Yet the Spanish Under-21 international’s rise to stardom is a peculiar one. Ironically, Munir was born in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a small town which lies within the autonomous community of Madrid. Fast forward nineteen or so years, however, and the youngster heralded as Spain’s “Next Big Thing” find himself playing for Madrid’s fiercest rivals, Barcelona.
At the age of fifteen, despite impressing on trial at Atletico, Munir was shipped out on loan to Rayo Majadahonda, a stint which altered the course of his career. His 32 goals in 29 matches attracted the interest of some of Europe’s elite from the off, with the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and Paris Saint-Germain all vying for his signature.
Barcelona, on the other hand, only entered the fray upon hearing of Real Madrid interest in snapping up the attacker. However, the talisman opted for Camp Nou after receiving assurances that meant his development would not be hampered. He was so eager to impress his new employers that, as legend would have it, he complied when asked to rid himself of his Neymar-styled hair and stubble.
The diminutive forward continued to impress and seamlessly fitted into Barcelona’s famed possession based style. His 11 goals from 10 matches in his debut Uefa Youth League season, in which he scored a magnificent goal from half-way in the final against Benfica Under-19s as they went on to secure the championship, saw him promoted to Barcelona “B” side. He debuted for the team back in March, and scored four goals in 11 appearances. The rest is history.
Despite his tender years, however, Munir has a certain air of confidence and maturity about him which is well beyond his years, a testament to his rapid development. Skilful on the ball and fleet of foot, the pacey left-footer does not shy away from taking on the best defenders around. It is perhaps his eye for goal that makes him a standout player and is not afraid of taking a shot from range either. Furthermore, his industrious work rate and impeccable ability to link-up with teammates means defender never get a moments rest, making him the ideal attacker.
Following his stand-out debut performance, coach Luis Enrique mused: “I had no fear about playing him. He trains like he plays, he gives us a lot of options and he has a lot of character. He never rests. But let's not get carried away, he still has a lot to do."
With the return of Pedro, Neymar and Suarez on the horizon, Munir may well be reduced to a lesser role at the club. Nevertheless, a star has been born, and yet again, Barcelona find themselves gifted with a talented player who is too good to be wasted.