Ryan Gauld, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Christian Atsu, Alan Dzagoev? It seems like clockwork nowadays, every year a new young star will burst onto the scene and social media will crown the new ‘Next Messi’. Unsurprisingly, though, very few have been able to live up to the expectations put on their young shoulders.
For most child prodigies, the name association to the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will quickly ware off. But, in the case of Athletic Bilbao winger, Iker Muniain, despite making his La Liga debut as a 16-year-old, eight years on, Muniain will be missing the rest of the season after suffering a torn ACL, the footballing world is left wondering, will Bilbao’s prince ever be able to reach his potential?
— Iker Muniain (@IkerMuniain10) October 9, 2017
Sadly for the man dubbed as the ‘Basque Messi’ this isn’t the first time that the youngster has had to battle back from a similar injury, during the 2014/2015 season, the former Spanish youth star suffered the exact same ACL tear and was sidelined for a further nine months of his still blossoming career.
Despite a youth system that has produced the likes of Fernando Llorente, Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez, Muniain has always been considered to be the jewel in the Los Leones’ crown. Still only 24, Muniain is a record-breaker at San Mames, already edging towards the 250 senior appearance mark, the Bilbao No.10 is still the club’s youngest ever player and also the youngest player to score in the famous red and white.
A key part of Spain’s 2011 and 2013 European Under-21s winners’ sides, Muniain’s stock really began to skyrocket in 2012, coming off the back of his first piece of international silverware, the winger began to shine playing on the left of a front three that included Fernando Llorente and Markel Susaeta, Muniain was the man who stole the headlines in a Bilbao side that ripped through Manchester United on their way to the Europa League final.
The recipient of the 2011 La Liga breakthrough player of the year award, an award won by both Sergio Busquets and Pedro, over the past 12 months, Muniain looked like he had put his injury problems behind him and was ready to finally step up to that next level. Playing as Bilbao’s sole playmaker, Muniain looked to be flourishing in the middle of the pitch, controlling the tempo of the game and playing in a deeper position, before his injury last month, Muniain held a better pass success rate than the likes of Lionel Messi and Kevin De Bruyne.
His performances were so eye-catching they earnt him the captain’s armband, Muniain looked to have finally become the heartbeat of the side, even if it came a couple of years later than planned.
Most LaLiga take-ons completed this season:
Lionel Messi (126)
Iker Muniain (81)
Dani Ceballos (79)
Andreas Pereira (75) pic.twitter.com/dSmo4kRqTG
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) June 5, 2017
Now recovering from a second devastating ACL injury, Muniain will take some comfort from Manchester City midfielder İlkay Gündoğan, the City star was also sidelined for nine months with an ACL injury, but the German international has made a successful return.
After signing a new contract with Bilbao in 2015, Muniain’s new release clause is estimated to be at around the €45millon and Bilbao’s chairman Josu Urrutia has made it clear that the newfound playmaker is not for sale. Despite still only being 24, Muniain already has a similar CV to that someone twice his age and has already shown that he is capable of bouncing back from a huge setback, Muniain should not be written off yet.
With arguably still more than a decade left in his career, Muniain still certainly has time on his side, although he might not be quite the red hot commodity he was in 2014 when Liverpool and Manchester United were scrambling for his signature, Muniain will be hoping that come next season, he will be able to replicate the form that saw him break into Spain’s senior side as a 21-year-old.