SOCCER

Barcelona’s homeboys

For an hour in 4-0 win over Levante, leader fielded 11 academy players

Barcelona's Martín Montoya Torralbo (l) duels for the ball with Levante's Juanlu Gómez during their La Liga match Sunday. / ALBERTO SAIZ (AP)

On Sunday, for the first time in Barcelona’s history, the club fielded a side made up entirely of players nurtured within the club’s youth system — the famed academy known as La Masia. Of those 11, eight were born in Catalonia, while the other three had moved to Barcelona at a young age to play for the club.

Admittedly, Barcelona began the away game at Valencian side Levante with Brazilian right back Dani Alves. But after 15 minutes, Alves was injured and replaced by squad player Martín Montoya.

The La Masia XI was Víctor Valdés; Montoya, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué, Jordi Alba; Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta; Pedro Rodríguez, Cesc Fàbregas and Lionel Messi.

The three non-Catalan players — Andres Iniesta, Leo Messi, and Pedro Rodríguez — had a significant impact on the game, with Messi scoring twice and Iniesta giving a dazzling performance that included a goal and three assists.

Our merit is having believed that academy players could take up key positions"

Messi’s brace took him within a hair’s breadth of Gerd Müller’s record of 85 goals in a calendar year. The Argentinean has a maximum of seven games — if Vilanova fields him in the last 16 of the King’s Cup, which is possible if he requires one or two more to surpass the German’s mark — to play in before the end of the year and looks set to break the record.

“It’s extraordinary, especially for those of us who learned to play football at La Masia. We’re proving and showing the good work that’s being done,” Xavi told the club’s official website.

The Spain midfielder stressed that Barcelona is happy with its comfortable advantage over rival Real Madrid, but added that the team is not getting carried away. “We’re pleased that we have an 11-point lead over Real Madrid, but we should only focus on how we perform on the pitch and try to create a bigger advantage over the team in second place [Atlético].”

La Masia was set up by Johan Cruyff who, while a Barcelona player in 1979, had suggested to the club that they needed a youth academy similar to the one at Ajax, where he had undergone his own football education. Cruyff returned to the club in 1988 as manager and it was during this time that he had his most significant influence on the Barcelona youth system, laying the foundations for what has now become world soccer’s most prolific player production line.

Through strict adherence to Cruyff’s application of the concept of total soccer, which he learned from Ajax coach Rinus Michels, the side has produced an increasing number of first team players for the club, many of whom are the best in the world in their position.

In 2010 La Masia became the first academy in history to have produced the top three players in the FIFA Ballon D’Or award, when Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were judged to be the top three players in the world for the year.

The academy, which has recently relocated from its old farmhouse building location to a state-of-the-art facility, also holds the distinction of providing each of Barcelona’s six representatives in the 2010 victory over Holland in South Africa, the most any club has provided in a single World Cup final.

“Our merit is having believed that academy players could take up key positions,” said former coach Pep Guardiola after the game. “One of my happiest decisions was continuing to play Pedro and Busquets.” Current coach Tito Vilanova added: “We play the lads regardless of the team we are up against.”

The academy has proved a winning strategy for competing with the superior financial might of Real Madrid, which now lags 11 points behind Barcelona, in third place.

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