Barça-Real Madrid: Aleñá, the flag-bearer for La Masia
The 21-year-old midfielder may become the latest academy graduate to debut in a Clásico with none of his peers having made the step up to the first team.
Barcelona midfielder Carles Aleñá left the Camp Nou pitch to an ovation during Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Valencia, his second consecutive home Liga start under Ernesto Valverde. The 21-year-old is one of an increasingly rare breed: a product of Barcelona’s La Masia academy who has successfully made the step up to the first team.
Although Aleñá is one of eight youth products in Barça’s current first team squad, he is five years younger than fourth captain Sergi Roberto and already enjoying more playing time than 24-year-old Sergi Samper, who didn’t make the squad for the Valencia game. With the departures of stalwarts such as Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, the number of homegrown stars is waning and Aleñá represents the best of the current crop of academy players, with the likes of Riqui Puig, Álex Collado, Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz still with the reserves and others, like Marc Cucurella on loan (at Eibar).
The transition from the golden age of La Masia to the current side managed by Valverde has not been as smooth as may have been imagined with the depth of Barça’s talent pool. Denis Suárez, Marc Bartra, Thiago and others who were seen as the likeliest to carry the flame on have been and gone, with only occasional forays on to the first team bench for Barça B regulars such as Iñaki Peña, who has been drafted in while Jasper Cillessen recovers.
Aleñá Barça's brightest La Masia hope
Now, Aleñá has a genuine opportunity to achieve the dream of all La Masia hopefuls: to face Real Madrid in a Clásico.
Wednesday’s Copa del Rey game comes at a time of relative flux for Valverde. His first-choice midfield remains Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and one other, either Arturo Vidal or Arthur, depending on the opposition. But Aleñá has forced his way into the reckoning while others, like Malcom, Jeison Murillo and Kevin-Prince Boateng, remain emergency options, although the latter could well feature on Wednesday to hand Luis Suárez a few minutes rest.
If Aleñá does the same, he will become the first La Masia graduate to debut against the eternal rival for a long while, long enough for genuine concerns to be raised about who will follow the 21-year-old’s lead in the generational renewal of Barça’s homegrown contingent.