Despite holding a slender 1-0 lead going into Wednesday's UEFA Champions League quarter-final against Schalke at Camp Nou, Barcelona will not be taking a place in the last four for granted. Somewhat fortunate to keep a clean sheet in last week's first leg, it fell to one of the youngest names on show to grab a vital goal and keep the Barça campaign on track.
The prodigious youngster in question is Bojan Krkic, a 17-year-old livewire currently outshining the likes of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o. And given the pair's inconsistent form this season, along with the repeated absences of Ronaldinho and Lionel Messi, the emergence of Bojan could not have come at a better time for under-fire Azulgrana coach Frank Rijkaard.
" ," said a relieved Rijkaard after Bojan's match-winning display in Germany, when he became his club's second-youngest Champions League scorer.
"We have to particularly congratulate him for everything he's been doing this season. Let's hope he doesn't lose his humility, because that's one of his biggest virtues, and that he keeps working like he has been doing up to now. Bojan really coulld have a magical future, and it's a real pleasure to have him with us," added the Dutch tactician.
A star in Korea
And it was not the first outstanding achievement of the player's short but intense career. Born to a Spanish mother and a Serbian father, Bojan joined the club's renowned cantera (youth set-up) in the 1999/2000 campaign and went on to fire home over 800 goals.
His first-team bow came on 24 April 2007 in a friendly against Al Ahly, the starlet scoring in a 4-0 win. "I couldn't have imagined a debut like that! I'd only expected to play a few minutes and I was fortunate enough to start the match and score a goal. It was very special," Bojan told FIFA.com.
His Barcelona debut was not the only landmark of a glittering 2007. Having inspired Spain to the UEFA European U-17 title, Bojan played a starring role in La Selección's campaign at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. And despite missing the final through suspension, where Spain would lose on penalties to Nigeria, Bojan was awarded the adidas Bronze Ball.
The timing of the world event delayed his La Liga debut, which came on 16 September 2007 against Osasuna. Just three days later he appeared in his first European tie against Lyon and within a month had grabbed his first top-flight goal, becoming the Catalan outfit's youngest-ever scorer in the competition - and the third youngest in top-flight history - in the process. Since then he has accumulated ten goals in all competitions (including eight in La Liga), which is a higher overall return than Ronaldinho and a better league tally than Henry.
Such figures underline Bojan's contribution to the Barcelona cause, one that does not correspond to his age or experience. Blessed with an unerring eye for goal and the technical ability to fire off shots from near-impossible angles, the stocky youngster's astute footballing brain enables him to time his runs to perfection, evading the tightest of markers and open spaces in crowded defences.
Nor is he one to over-elaborate, only resorting to flamboyant skill when it is absolutely necessary. And such is the respect he commands in the Azulgrana dressing room that even the likes of Eto'o and Henry willingly move out wide to allow him the central striking role.
" ," said the Cameroon international.
Thierry Henry shares Eto'o's paternalistic
delight at Bojan's progress, although he warned against
burdening the youngster with too much expectation and hype.
"He reminds me of myself when I started out," said the
Frenchman. "He's a very nice lad, he's takes
everything in. If he wants it enough he can become an incredible
player, but sometimes people put too much pressure on him. He's
only 17 and it's not easy playing for
Barça. When he takes to the field people are always
expecting him to play like Ronnie, but it's too much. He needs
to be given time."
Mindful of this, the club has taken measures to shelter the young prodigy from the media glare. The player himself, meanwhile, continues to take things as they come, and still retains the freshness of youth, despite his rapid ascent to the upper echelons of world football.
Well used to punching above his weight, Bojan played his first game for Spain U-21s at just 16 and has already been called up by senior national team coach Luis Aragones for a friendly encounter, only missing out after picking up a knock in training. His maturity and consistency have also lent weight to those voices calling for his inclusion in the La Furia Roja squad for this summer's UEFA EURO 2008 finals.
And while one can only guess at what the future holds for the hottest emerging talent in the Spanish game, Bojan Krkic could be the name on everybody's lips for some time to come.