Manchester United were well on their way to victory over Stoke City when Paul Pogba made his Premier League debut on January 31, a moment that ignited intense excitement within supporters as one of Europe's most promising players took another step toward making it big at Old Trafford.
Two penalties provided United with a comfortable 2-0 lead, and they were easily coasting to another three points as Stoke offered little threat of mounting a comeback. The atmosphere had already faded as the energy on the pitch resided with United doing just enough to keep control.
Or rather, it was until the 72nd minute when the fourth official lifted his board to reveal the No. 42 in green lights. Javier Hernandez trotted off the field as the 18-year-old Pogba took his place in midfield. Suddenly, a new sense of energy was injected into the game.
In his second-half cameo, Pogba came close to scoring and providing an assist. He constantly looked to push forward and gave the game new life.
Excitement from supporters—not just at Old Trafford, but around the world—escalated to surprising levels for a kid who had only made three substitute appearances at the senior level. Rarely has there been such a buzz surrounding a player who had never even registered a start for the first team.
Such is usually the type of excitement reserved for a player who dominates the headlines of back pages. Pogba, with just a mere three substitute appearances, was already making headlines at that time, however.
The media had been rife with speculation surrounding the most promising young talent from United's famous academy. Now in the final year of his contact with United, Pogba had been linked with any club that reporters could fathom.
Fast-forward nearly three months, and Pogba's future at United is no clearer than it was when he took to the pitch at Old Trafford, met warmly by fans eager to see him fulfill his potential.
Pogba has now become an inescapable talking point, and speculation surrounding his future will only intensify the longer that a new deal goes unsigned.
Further news on the midfielder's future was reported last week, with the player's agent, Mino Raiola, confirming that Pogba was considering offers from United and Juventus. Facing competition from one of Europe's top clubs, United must do everything in their power to hold onto this promising young prospect.
Much can be made of the excitement that met Pogba in that game against Stoke. He certainly has an abundance of potential, but the response of some supporters is exaggerated. The hype and lofty expectations placed upon Pogba have almost become silly, and certainly unjustified.
Some supporters believe he is ready to be more heavily involved in the Premier League and that he will be the answer to all of United's midfield problems. It is unfair to place such burden of expectation upon such young and inexperienced shoulders.
While these expectations have become unrealistic, as hype fools some supporters into believing Pogba is far better than he actually is, the fact remains that Pogba is one of the best young players in Europe. With the glimpses of brilliance he's shown, Pogba could be one of the stars of the future, although it is too early to get carried away with such talk.
For anyone who regularly watched Pogba in the reserves and academy last year, the potential was clear for everyone to witness. He often looked a class above not only the competition, but also his teammates. This inevitably led to calls for him to be given opportunities in the first team.
Pogba is a strong, physically imposing player, which suits the style of play in England. He is very gifted from a technical standpoint, and he has a beautiful long-range strike that has already resulted in YouTube videos dedicated to his goals. Blessed with a fine touch, his control and ability to run at defenders is an exciting attribute in a young player.
He possesses all of the natural attributes to be a top player. It is simply a matter of fulfilling his potential at this stage. Pogba is quickly developing into a fine box-to-box midfielder, but there is still plenty he has to learn in order to succeed at the highest level. He still struggles with the defensive side of the game, and there remain concerns about his positioning, although that is to be expected from a young player and should improve with experience.
While Pogba was the star last season, his progress seems to have stalled somewhat this season. Pogba is arguably no longer even the best players in the reserves, and at times his performances have been somewhat indifferent.
In his three Carling Cup appearances, Pogba appeared to be out of his depth against Championship opposition. It was only in the Stoke match that fans finally saw the Pogba that had so many excited last season.
Now Pogba seems unsure about his future at Old Trafford, with the lure from Italy clearly proving rather tempting. Since coming to United from Le Havre in 2009, Pogba has demonstrated exactly why he is considered such a promising young talent. Now United have to convince him to commit his long-term future.
Why should United go to so much effort to keep a young, inexperienced player yet to prove himself at the first team? Quite simply because of what he could be. Despite being overhyped by supporters, which is no fault of his own, and struggling in some of his first team opportunities, Pogba still has the potential to become one of the best players in the world.
United do need more talent in the midfield, and Pogba could be the long-term option that comes from within the club, saving United from paying over the odds for a midfielder in the future. Pogba is unlikely to truly make an impact on the first team for another two or three seasons, probably after a few loans in the Championship and Premier League, but he could eventually prove a valuable asset in the United midfield.
Few things would be worse than to watch Pogba leave and become a star at Juventus while United continue to cry out for some fresh talent in the midfield. United may well have the star of the future already at the club, and it is imperative to hold on to such talent.
It seems the club have approached this unfortunate scenario in the best possible fashion, giving Pogba plenty of room to make his decision. This is obviously a daunting career decision for a 19-year-old player to make, and pressuring him into a deal could have an adverse effect.
The club have also done well to show Pogba that he has a future at United, often including him on the bench ahead of veterans player such as Dimitar Berbatov. Hopefully this tactic will help Pogba to realize that his future would be best served at United under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Much will continue to be made of his future until there is finally confirmation of where he will be next season, but for the meantime United must continue to do all that they can to secure the signature of one of the most promising young talents in the game. Although he may not be the finished product yet, it would be a harsh blow to lose a player who could potentially be one of the next big stars.