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Aug 25, 2014

The emergence of Munir El Haddadi

Barcelona head coach Luis Enrique praised his side's response to going a man down, as they defeated Elche 3-0 in their opening La Liga match.

With their proud history of youth development, the Barcelona faithful absolutely love it at the Camp Nou when a tyro striker makes his debut, rips up the match and scores.

Still more when that player grew up in Madrid and has been "missed" by both the capital clubs.

Under which circumstances, not unless he bled Blaugrana, could 18-year-old Munir El Haddadi excite Barcelona's cule fans any more than he's doing right now.

On Sunday night, in Barcelona's 3-0 victory over Elche, his harassment of the defence helped create the conditions for Lionel Messi's first goal, he rattled the opposition woodwork and then, in that delicate territory just after halftime when each team was jockeying to discover whether Javier Mascherano being sent off might tilt the balance toward the visitors, Munir scored a left-footed half-volley over Elche's keeper.

The last debutant from Barca's La Masia youth academy to make such an impact in his home debut, lobbing the Albacete keeper Raul Valbuena once, only to see the 'goal' incorrectly ruled off and then putting things right by deftly chipping the ball over Valbuena from precisely the same position minutes later was ... Lionel Andres Messi in 2005.

I'm not comparing Munir's ability to Messi's -- that would be beyond unfair.

But the buzz around this elegant, intuitive footballer has a dozen sources of electricity.

For one, he grew up in and around Madrid, and nearly six years ago should have been secured by the current Spanish champions.

He trialled for Atletico but something, maybe his age, his size or the complexity of being confident in a kid's promise at that age, meant that they allowed him to move on to Rayo Majadahonda, a club within a short walk of Atleti's training ground about 20 minutes outside the city of Madrid. By the time he'd hit 32 goals in 30 games, Munir's suitors were lining up.

After an impressive showing in his debut, Barcelona's Munir El Haddadi has been thrust firmly into the limelight.

From England, Manchester City were suitors. But also from within Spain, elbowing each other out of the way, there were both Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Jose Luis Colomo was the Barcelona scout who sent out smoke signals which read in the skies over Madrid: "Found fabulous talent (stop) Send Camp Nou executives quickly (stop) Los Blancos about to pinch him (stop)."

Frankly he could have been describing a one-paced, one-legged overweight 23-year-old, and the last part about Real Madrid being on the point of beating Barca to him would have been sufficient to galvanize the Catalan bosses.

- Tomas: Munir El Haddadi is not Leo Messi
- Corrigan: Luis Enrique hails 'magic' Lionel Messi

Barca youth coach Francesc Xavier Garcia Pimienta was the man sent through for the big yes/no decision before trying to trump Madrid, and in an April 2011 match between Majadahonda and Brunete, he just happened to see Munir rattle in the perfect hat trick -- right foot, left foot, header. The battle for the young man's signature was on.

Although still a relatively timid lad, Munir was desperate to make the immediate leap to full-time training at a big club. And while he'll admit to having been inspired as a kid by Messi's exploits (a great advantage to los Blaugrana in trying to persuade a 15-year-old to sign), legend has it that Madrid wouldn't find a place for him to live in their Academy residences while Barcelona, acting under the advice of Colomo and Pimienta, offered to install the talented kid in the newly built 11 million euro Masia residence for talented footballers.

Later in 2011, arriving in Catalunya to be presented on his first day at the youth academy, Munir was told in no uncertain terms that the nicely cultivated Neymar-style coxcomb hairstyle and the three-day stubble would have to go, if he expected to make it past his first 24 hours there. He complied.

Munir El Haddadi kisses the Lennart Johansson trophy in celebration after victory over Benfica in the 2014 UEFA Youth League Final.

Munir is now, as he's always been, a footballer of tremendous confidence, elegance, balance -- plus the most wonderful innate gift: knowing the right place to 'arrive' almost all the time. Part of his prolific talent is owed to just this.

Look at the goal against Elche. Running into what was nominally Messi's space, he shows at just the right time for Rakitic to loft a left-footed pass over the normally packed (but currently dozing) visiting defence. Without a second look, Munir's left foot is deployed to elevate the ball up and away to the keeper's far right corner. It's a gem.

Yet another source of the electric buzz about this kid who has only been 'home-bred' since 2011 is the fact that he won two trophies with the Juvenil B side in his first season, the national league and the Copa Catalunya. He scored 22 times while clinching the former title and opened the scoring in the 2-0 win over Espanyol in the Copa final.

Still more importantly, when -- after two seasons in Juvenil B -- he was finally promoted to the A side (two stages below the first team) he took control as if to show 'this took you TOO long to recognise in me!'

Two-thirds of the way through his first season -- 2013-14 -- for Jordi Vinyals, Munir had become the UEFA Youth League (junior Champions League) top scorer with nine goals -- before he added two more in the final. The first, a penalty box classic, and a second where he lobbed the Benfica keeper from halfway.

It ensured that, in a season when the senior team were flopping, he showed that the kids were, indeed, all right.

Munir's debut saw him playing alongside Barcelona legends like Dani Alves and Lionel Messi.

"I always try to shoot from the halfway line," the striker said. "I saw one of my teammates breaking forward, looked at their goalkeeper and then just had a go. It's something that will be very difficult to repeat."

Promoted into Eusebio's Barca B team, he played 12 times, started just over half of those and scored four times.

When Luis Enrique said after the Elche win: "this kid is burning through the youth team levels at an unstoppable speed," it was this he was referring to.

The last home-developed kid to zip through three levels -- Juvenil, Barca B and then the first team -- well within one calendar year, was Messi.

Shortly after arriving, Munir's fanaticism for Messi culminated in him taking advantage of his status as a Masia alumnus. After the first team completed a public training session at the Mini Stadium, Munir asked the first-team genius to pose with him for a photo.

There they were: Messi in his training top, sawn off sleeves, and Munir looking like a 1980s pop star in his drainpipe trousers, loud white belt and restored Neymar-cut hairstyle.

Now here they are. Together. All preseason during which Munir top-scored with four. First Liga match of the season in which they shared all the goals.

In the meantime, Munir got the encouraging 'Keep doing what you're doing' message from Luis Enrique on Sunday night. And he got the occasional pass and a hug of congratulation from Leo Messi.

The same man who trod this path nine years ago. Some 245 goals in 278 La Liga games later, as Messi draws within six of Telmo Zarra's La Liga scoring record, Barcelona find themselves gifted with another precocious kid whose wonderful abilities stoke our love for football.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."

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