Manchester United fans were hoping for a classic when they tuned in to watch the FA Youth Cup tie with Liverpool on Saturday afternoon.
Ten years ago the two clubs met in the same competition. Paul Pogba was sent off for a cheeky penalty run-up and 10,000 supporters watched Ravel Morrison turn the game on its head as United won the most remarkable youth encounter.
Even at youth level United vs Liverpool identifies the players who are really up for the fight, and in a 1-0 defeat at Leigh last weekend the hosts were reminded of their next academy star ready to grace the first-team scene.
Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over at United 13 academy players have been handed their debuts in the first-team – based on Hannibal Mejbri’s spirited performance over the weekend that tally will soon tick over to 14.
Had it not been for an unfortunate shoulder injury suffered against Arsenal in February the 18-year-old might very well have already made his senior bow, instead he was forced to watch on as teenage teammate Shola Shoretire realised his own first-team dream in February.
Hannibal inked a new long-term contract at United last month and the next step in his development will be to give him a taste of first-team football.
“You drip-feed them in and you don’t expect them to set the world alight, but you want to see them in this environment and he’s looked comfortable and confident,” Solskjaer said of the French teenager last week. “Hopefully, we can give him that extra motivation and inspiration to show even more of his talent and why not?”
Unfortunately a debut in the Europa League this season is not on the cards as Hannibal is not eligible for the club’s European B-list, because he has not been at the club for the minimum requirement of two years.
For a debut in Europe Hannibal, like Amad was, would have had to have been named on United’s A-list, submitted in February. The French youngster was omitted. Phil Jones was not.
Last year United’s then head of first-team development Nicky Butt likened Hannibal to David Beckham and Ryan Giggs for his leadership on the pitch – his performance in the defeat by Liverpool showed exactly why.
“Leaders are always looked at like a Roy Keane, a Steve Bruce, a Bryan Robson, those kind of verbal, real aggression, real leaders,” Butt told MEN Sport. “And then you’ve got leaders like Paul Scholes or David Beckham or Ryan Giggs, who’s quiet but really leads by example of how they play and how they work hard.
“We’ve got the old-fashioned leaders, if you like, who are going to talk to the players and drive the team. Hannibal’s a leader. The way he plays his football is 100mph, he’s non-stop running up and down.”
Butt is no longer at United to oversee his development, but newly appointed technical director Darren Fletcher is. Thankfully for him, Hannibal’s performance on Saturday made the trip to Leigh worthwhile, despite the poor result.
Everything good that Neil Ryan’s side did went through the teenager, although his frustrations were clear with his frequent selfishness on the ball as he battled to try and keep his side in the competition on his own.
There were moments of raw skill which left Liverpool defenders dazzled, tough challenges from those opponents who managed to get close enough to him, and an outburst at an official for making a wrong decision.
It is this raw tenacity which makes Hannibal a midfield maverick and an unpredictable joy to watch, but it is that same passion which often leads to his downfall when he gets so visibly frustrated.
The €10million transfer fee which facilitated his arrival from AS Monaco ensures he has a target on his back, and his flamboyant style also encourages physical treatment from opponents.
After returning from injury an immediate reintegration to the first-team bubble last week was further evidence of the high hopes Solskjaer has for the youngster and in the Norwegian he has an ideal mentor to polish his raw talents.
With the club all but assured of Champions League qualification for next season there is a good chance we will see Hannibal in a Premier League matchday squad in the final few weeks of the domestic campaign.