Catalan kid Bojan ready to gun down ageing Campbell
Sol Campbell will be more interested than most to see Pep Guardiola's Barcelona team sheet tonight. If, as expected, the Englishman is picked to play alongside Thomas Vermaelen in Alex Song's absence, he will be faced with the job of shackling either Thierry Henry or Bojan Krkic -- one lined up alongside him in the Champions League final Arsenal lost in Paris, the other one was still at school back in 2006.
Nineteen-year-old Bojan was talking up the various striking options open to coach Guardiola ahead of tonight's second leg but he knows his manager has, in reality, just one simple choice to make -- him or Henry.
"Nobody better than the manager knows how we should approach this game. I want to play but there are a lot of players playing at a high level and I will have to wait and see," Bojan said. But with Henry out of sorts and Zlatan Ibrahimovic injured, Bojan is the favourite to start.
Bojan has been at Barcelona since signing as an eight-year-old. His Serbia-born father, then a Barcelona scout, had played for Red Star Belgrade before moving to Catalonia where he turned out for local side Mollerussa. He met Bojan's mother, a nurse, when she helped him recover from an injury.
Bojan scored more than 900 goals in various levels of the club's youth system and broke into the senior squad under Frank Rijkaard in the 2007-08 season, becoming the third youngest player in the club's history to play for the first team when he made his debut against Osasuna in September 2007. When he scored against Villarreal a month later he became the club's youngest scorer, aged 17 years and 53 days, running onto a pass from Lionel Messi, the previous record holder.
His dual nationality seemed to hasten Spain's willingness to cap him. After he won the player of the tournament award two years running at the U-17 European Championship, he made his debut for the U-21 side aged just 16 and became the second youngest player ever to represent his country when he made his full national debut in September 2008.
But Rijkaard's warning that the young striker's second season would be much harder than the first proved correct. "It does not matter if a player is only 17, if he gets to play with even better players then his level will increase hugely," Rijkaard said. "But it is when people get to know who you are that the really important moment starts for a talent."
Guardiola took over from the Dutch coach in the summer of 2008 and was less keen to blood the local hero. Some suggested he did not like the way Bojan had left the youth side Guardiola was in charge of to play for the seniors under Rijkaard and was looking to give the striker a reality check. Last season he was largely overlooked but he did score five goals in the Kings Cup.
"Maybe I have a debt to him," said Guardiola this week, hinting at an acceptance that he was hard on Bojan last season. "When he plays he scores. It is as simple as that and I am happier than anyone when he is successful."
Will that debt be paid tonight by playing him ahead of Henry? The two have been linked ever since Bojan was unable to go to Henry's presentation as a Barcelona player because he was at school. Henry was the first to put an arm around Bojan when he needed it and accepted his fate when the debutant took his place in the starting line-up. "You can understand it," Henry said in his first season at Barcelona. "He is having a fantastic campaign and he is a Catalan kid -- the supporters love nothing more than to have a local hero."
If Barcelona fans were picking the side tonight his name would be on the team-sheet. The man who is picking it gave a wry smile when asked if, in view of questions over Henry's attitude, Bojan (who netted twice at the weekend) was favourite to start.
"Scoring goals will give Bojan a lot of confidence," said Guardiola. "He is another possibility for us. Henry has a problem because people always seem to doubt his commitment and he has been playing for a long time with a tendon problem. But I am expecting the best from him as I am of all my players tonight."
No clues then for Campbell, who would probably rather see his old pal Henry running at him than a player in far better form than Henry, and far younger.
Asked if it would be easier playing against a side without Ibrahimovic, Arsene Wenger seemed to take for granted that it would be Henry who would be called up. "If Zlatan plays or if Henry plays, they are both world class.
That is what happens when you play a big side, if they have one player injured then another great player steps in."
Wenger may not consider Bojan a world-class player yet, but the Arsenal manager should beware as the Catalan kid is well on his way to becoming one.