The new UEFA Youth League was always expected to produce great prospects. And it happened in its first season in the shape of FC Barcelona's prolific Munir El Haddadi.
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If the new UEFA Youth League was expected to produce great prospects, it certainly did so in its first season with the emergence of FC Barcelona's – and now Spain's – prolific Munir El Haddadi.
2014 in short
Entering the new year, the 18-year-old El Haddadi had never represented Spain at any level, let alone Barcelona's senior team. By the end, he had been the undeniable ace, not to mention top scorer, in his club's 2013/14 UEFA Youth League triumph, had made his Barcelona B debut and, five months later, full Liga bow, and had been capped by Spain at Under-19, U21 and senior levels.
Initially a Club Atlético de Madrid trainee, his scoring spree while on loan to CF Rayo Majadahonda earned him a 2011 offer from Barcelona in the face of competition from other heavyweights. In his first two seasons in Catalonia the Blaugrana won the national U17 title, and 2013/14 began with them in similarly fine form in the U18 competition – El Haddadi also impressing as five-goal joint top scorer in the inaugural UEFA Youth League group stage.
The forward continued to score freely in the UEFA Youth League, netting in the round of 16 against FC København and last eight versus Arsenal FC to send Barcelona to the four-team finals. With the Catalans marching towards Spain's U18 title, El Haddadi was promised to Barça B, debuting on 1 March and hitting four goals in 11 outings.
El Haddadi went into the first UEFA Youth League finals in Nyon as the man to watch – and did not disappoint. His strike took Barcelona past FC Schalke 04 in a tight semi-final, then in the decider with SL Benfica he made it 2-0 before sealing the trophy with an outrageous effort from halfway. "I wanted to pass to a team-mate, but then saw the goalkeeper off his line so tried to lob him and it went in," he told UEFA.com. His competition tally of 11 goals was five more than anyone else.
A month after that April victory, El Haddadi received his first international call – scoring in all three of Spain's UEFA European U19 Championship elite round fixtures as they were pipped to the finals by Germany. No matter: El Haddadi's rise continued unchecked and, promoted to Barça's first team by new coach Luis Enrique, he finished pre-season as four-goal top scorer. His subsequent Liga bow came on 24 August against Elche CF and was sealed with a goal. On 4 September, the now 19-year-old collected a first Spain U21 cap and four days later he came off the bench for the seniors in a UEFA EURO 2016 qualifier against FYR Macedonia. A UEFA Champions League debut quickly followed.
The teenager's reputation for skilful play and predatory goalscoring established, El Haddadi finished 2014 with a new Barcelona contract including a €35m release clause. Already into double figures for senior appearances, can El Haddadi possibly top this year? It's going to be fun finding out ...