The meteoric rise of Athletic Bilbao's boy wonder Iker Muniain
Among the many nippy and clever Athletic Bilbao attackers who led Manchester United’s midfield and defence a merry dance during their 3-2 Europa League first leg win at Old Trafford last Thursday, Iker Muniain was the nippiest and cleverest.
The diminutive 19-year-old was at the heart of everything his side did, drawing two superb saves from United keeper David de Gea, and showing superb anticipation, pace and finishing to score his side’s third goal.
The outstanding performance marked the arrival on the big European stage of a player long expected in Spain (and the Basque country) to become a huge global star. Born in Navarre, which sneaks him inside Athletic’s Basque-only players policy, Muniain moved to Bilbao’s youth academy aged 12 and made his first team debut at just 16.
He is the youngest ever player to appear, and to score, for Los Leones first team and also the youngest goalscorer in La Liga history. He starred as Spain won the European U-19 tournament in summer 2010, and again at the U-21 European Championship last June (although three years younger than many team-mates).
Such precocity saw him likened to previous prodigies ranging from Leo Messi to Bart Simpson (the hair). While previous Athletic coach Joaquín Caparros eased the frail looking but surprisingly strong youngster into action, this season Muniain has been a regular starter under Argentine tactician Marcelo Bielsa.
With Ander Herrera was injured in October, Bielsa moved Muniain inside, giving him a roving playmaking role behind Fernando Llorente. When Ander returned, Muniain was nominally moved back to the left, but with the freedom to come inside, link with team-mates or head straight for goal.
Many of his eight goals in 36 games this season have been excellent strikes at key moments - a stunning curler at Valencia, a solo effort to win in Bratislava, vital goals in both legs against Lokomotiv Moscow and then last week's strike at Old Trafford. This danger has been noted by opposition teams – earlier this season he was La Liga’s most fouled player.
His stunning form on the pitch also brought recognition off it. Spain coach Vicente del Bosque called up Muniain ahead of Barca’s Pedro Rodríguez for last month’s friendly against Venezuela. Appearing as a late sub, he looked completely at home alongside Xavi, Iniesta and Spain’s other tiki-takkers, almost crowning his debut with a goal. Although more likely to play for Spain’s Olympic team in London this summer than for Del Bosque at Euro 2012, many more caps for la selección look certain.
First though Muniain has the opportunity to help dump Manchester United out of Europe and write another chapter in Athletic’s glorious history. Win or lose tonight, Bart’s story is just beginning.