It’s on the biggest stage where the biggest players often make their mark, but in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup tonight, Manchester United might well be hoping their most famous face provides a timely distraction.
Alejandro Garnacho has been the star for United U18s in the prestigious youth competition so far this season, netting four goals across the last four rounds en route to the last four.
All of those strikes have come at Old Trafford, including a brilliant brace against Leicester in the quarter-finals, while the pick of the bunch came two rounds ago when he ran almost the entire length of the pitch against Everton before coolly slotting past the keeper .
READ MORE: Manchester United starlet Alejandro Garnacho receives shock Argentina call-up alongside Lionel Messi
The 17-year-old celebrated his super solo goal by taking his shirt off and performing Cristiano Ronaldo’s iconic ‘Siuuu!’ celebration as he was mobbed by teammates. However, he might soon be shining under the influence of Lionel Messi instead.
This week, the Spanish-born teenager was named in the provisional Argentina squad for their World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month despite having never made a senior appearance, a ploy by his mother’s country of birth to secure the long-term future of a very promising youngster.
It speaks volumes about Garnacho’s talent that he is being courted by two elite footballing nations at such a young age, but with so much focus on his individual ability, he could prove to be the ideal distraction, allowing other teammates to take center stage against Wolves .
“He has got to perform,” Travis Binnion, United’s manager in the FA Youth Cup told The Manchester Evening News. “He’s getting a taste for that now. He’s learning how to perform well and is working really hard. He got the two goals tonight (the quarter-final), but I feel, and I think he would agree, there were better performances on the night.
“I thought Tyler Fredricson at the back, Radek (Vitek) again in goal. I thought our two midfielders were outstanding throughout the night, Dan Gore, Kobbie Mainoo. I thought Charlie McNeill led the line ever so well, and although he has not got a goal tonight, he has occupied all three center-halves with his runs. We have got a lot of good players and will not be singling out one of them. “
McNeill is himself an example of a youth player who has brought a lot more to his game than numbers. During his time at Man City he scored over 600 goals at youth level, and since moving to United, many supporters have judged him solely on his scoring return.
However, since the start of the season, he has added a lot more to his game and is now operating as more of a team player, which makes him another important component of the FA Youth Cup success this time around.
Binnion added: “He is a goal scorer, that will always be his currency. It is the hardest thing in the game to do, but his all-round game is developing well. He is developing well, so we are really pleased with him . “
Ralf Rangnick was in attendance to watch United defeat Leicester in the last round, though he had left his seat in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand by the time Garnacho popped up two minutes from time to not the winning goal.
He’ll be paying close attention once again on Wednesday night, though, a commitment to youth development that is filling the latest batch of youngsters with an even greater incentive to catch his eye.
“It’s really good to know he’s here,” defender Sam Murray said. “You do see players get a chance, and you do know it’s definitely possible. It does give us that extra push, because why not? It could be you. You could be next, so it’s brilliant.”
“It’s good to know he wants to watch the youth that are coming through,” Tyler Fredricson echoed. “We want to impress him to try and get through and give a good impression for him to try and get to the first team.”
Any players who do show enough potential to ever get a chance in the senior side will be helped in part by their exposure to Old Trafford at such a young age. The semi-final will be the fourth time United have played at the Theater of Dreams in the FA Youth Cup this season, a priceless experience in their development cycle.
“Growing up at this club, it’s what you look forward to and aspire to do. It’s a dream come true,” Fredricson gleaned after the quarter-final win.
Having come from behind to defeat Everton and Leicester in the last two rounds, United head into their semi-final clash with Wolves full of belief that they can reach the final of the competition for the first time in 11 years. “We always back ourselves against any opposition we are playing against,” Sam Mather said.
“Leicester brought a good side, but we knew we could overcome that. We can enjoy it to a certain extent, but we’ve got to go and do it in the next round and the final after that. We will back ourselves and hopefully , we will get the right result. “
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