Athletic Bilbao v Anderlecht, Europa League, February 18, 2010
In the multitude of Europa League matches on Thursday night – a competition which suffers from a little brother complex at the best of times – the meeting of Bilbao and Anderlecht could easily be ignored. But to do so would be to miss out on the coming together of two future superstars of tomorrow as two of the most highly-prized teenagers in world football come face to face for the first time.
Over in the Spanish corner is fresh-faced wonderkid Iker Muniain. (Video evidence here.)
At 17-years-old Muniain has been breaking records ever since he made his debut for Bilbao on 30 July 2009 in a Europa League qualifying match against Swiss outfit Young Boys.Â Muniain’s debut made him the youngest player ever to wear Athletic’s shirt in an official game, but that record was shelved just one week later in the return match against Young Boys, as Munian grabbed his first goal in a 2-1 away victory in Bern which saw Iker scoop the record of the youngest ever player to ever score for Bilbao.
And the records kept falling. He is the youngest ever Bilbao player to play in La Liga and, after scoring his debut league goal against Real Valladolid, Muniain assumed the crown as the youngster ever goalscorer in La Liga history.
Unsurprisingly, the hype around Iker has been growing ever since, and the product of the Bilbao youth system recently secured his immediate future with his Basque employers, signing a contract until the end of the 2014/2015 season. Crucially, with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Liverpool said to be circling around the teenager, Muniain agreed to set his release clause at a fee believed to be around 36-45 million euros.
Muniain, 5.5ft, reminds many of Lionel Messi. A winger who can play on either flank or as a supporting striker, he is blessed with amazing speed, technique and agility, as well as two gifted feet.
Reducing Bilbao to a one-man show though would be folly. Currently holding seventh position in the Spanish top flight, Joaquin Caparros’ outfit has a squad brimming with talent but who lack the crucial ingredient of consistency. This has been evident in the past month in Spain as Bilbao has gone from the highs of beating Real Madrid 1-nil at home, to finding themselves beaten away from home at Deportivo, Espanyol and last weekend in Villareal.
Looking at a couple of Bilbao’s key players their main goal threat will be posed by Spanish international forward Fernando Llorente. The leading goalscorer with 8 goals in 21 appearances, Llorente has many qualities of a typical English centre-forward being physically strong, good in the air, and able to score from both inside and outside the opponent’s area. But while Llorente may earn the lion’s share of plaudits, midfielder Javi Martinez is the heart around which this team functions. A dynamic presence in the centre of the park, Martinez is Bilbao’s main puppeteer and playmaker. (Bilbao are 13/5 to win both halves.)
Flipping focus onto Anderlecht, it is impossible to begin anywhere else but with flagging up the incredible 16-year-old goal-scoring sensation Romelu Lukaku. (Video evidence here.)
The buzz around Lukaku, dubbed the next Didier Drogba, is incredible. Despite his age, Lukaka has appeared in over 20 matches for the Belgian league leaders this season and the forward has already assumed the mantle as his team’s star player with a team-leading 12 goals this term.
Lukaku’s stats are already the stuff that fairytales are made of. Born in Antwerp to Congolese parents, Romelu proved himself a goalscorer extraordinaire ever since he first kicked a football. When he was six-years-old he joined local side Lierse where he scored an amazing 130 goals in 68 games.
Lukaku’s transition from kiddy football to the professional game though was made possible by the forward’s physique. Unlike most 16-year-olds roaming the planet, Lukaku already is bigger than most grown men, standing at 6.3 ft and weighing 95kg. Lukaku though is far more than a very big kid, and he has blended his physical presence with his football talent as a left-footed striker, who can also score with his right and in the air.
Lukaku forms part a youthful three-pronged attack for Anderlecht, alongside 21-year-old Argentine Matias Suarez and 25-year-old Moroccan playmaker Mbark Boussoufa, however the Belgians will be without highly rated Argentinian striker Nicolas Frutos with the forward absent due to an achilles injury. (Anderlecht are 15/1 to win both halves.)
Picking an overall winner in the tie isn’t easy. (Bilbao are 5/8 to qualify, Anderlecht are 5/4.) Anderlecht were rocked last weekend losing 2-1 at home to Sint-Truiden, which was the club’s second defeat in four matches after being dumped out the cup by Cercle Brugges. But in Europe, Anderlecht swept to the last 32 by winning their group in which they picked up two wins and a draw on their travels, including a terrific 3-1 win away at Ajax in the final group game.
Bilbao though are no pushovers on their own soil. (Bilbao are 8/5 to keep a clean sheet, 4/7 against.) They have won their last three consecutive matches at home and they will prove a tough nut to crack for the Belgians.
101gg predicts: Athletic Bilbao 2 – Anderlecht 2 (19/1)
Full match odds here.