Manchester United are having a tough time at the moment. It’s all relative, of course. There are plenty of football supporters who don’t know whether their team will exist by the start of next season, or what division they’ll be in or whether Sam Allardyce will end up being their manager.
Given United’s recent history, however, being seventh in the league, out of the FA Cup and behind in a League Cup semi-final after the first leg is essentially football Armageddon.
There have been few causes for genuine excitement and pride in United’s performances on the pitch, and most of them have been mercurial and quick to pass.
An exception is a young man with the world at his feet (and most of the countries in the world offering him a gig in their national team). Adnan Januzaj was given United’s Denzil Haroun Reserve Team Player of the Year award last season. It is an award that highlights just how rare it is for academy stars at United to blossom into fully fledged stars at United. In the past two decades, since Nicky Butt won it in 1993/94, of all the winners of the award only Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea have become first-team regulars.
And with the greatest respect for two men about whom United fans have barely a bad word to say, neither of those ever demonstrated the level of potential for excitement that Adnan Januzaj does.
His remarkable duck-to-water transition into the senior squad was foreshadowed. Sir Alex Ferguson had him on the bench for his final game in charge, against West Bromwich Albion, he was the standout player in the reserves last season and he looked good in pre-season.
So far, so Federico Macheda.
However, that is where the comparison ends. From an electrifying cameo in the Community Shield and a starring role in Rio Ferdinand’s testimonial against Sevilla, Januzaj clearly warranted consideration for a first-team berth, and when he was given his opportunity he grabbed it and ran. And ran. And dribbled. And scored.
From the Community Shield onward, though, a whisper began to grow. “Does he remind you of…” then a pause where your inner guard against excessive hyperbole and expectation takes stock of what you are about to say… ”Cristiano Ronaldo?”
Not since Ronaldo’s electric debut against Bolton have United fans so quickly and collectively decided that a player was the real deal. Many fans have speculated that Januzaj might even have more finished product than an 18-year-old Ronaldo. He has a very different frame, but he combines a level of wiry strength with exceptional balance and ball control that make it very hard to get the ball off him. (No wonder he is getting fouled so often.)
He also shares a directness of approach with Ronaldo—when he gets the ball, he wants to make as much difference to the game as quickly and effectively as possible. He has even demonstrated an aerial threat on occasion, much like a young Ronnie did, his header against Villa being a fine example.
None of which is, of course, not to say that he will ever reach the giddy heights that Ronaldo has reached. Let alone the risk of injury or burnout, it is not clear yet whether Januzaj has the intense drive and ambition to become the best player in the world that set Cristiano on his path to continual improvement and personal glory.
What does appear clear, however, is that Januzaj may well be the United academy product with the best chance of doing so for a long time.