What next for Barcelona? La Masia looks for another Lionel Messi
BARCELONA -- Not for the first time, Barcelona's Champions League exit on Wednesday was greeted as the end of a cycle. Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez have long since departed and by the start of next season Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi will all be over 30. After such disappointment, it's only natural to ponder what comes next.
Usually at Barca what comes next comes from within. But that has not been the case recently. Big money has been spent on Neymar and Luis Suarez, while homegrown players like Thiago Alcantara and Marc Bartra have been allowed to leave.
The feeling among many of the club's socios is that the importance of La Masia -- the club's academy -- has decreased. In the 2-1 win over Leganes in February there were just three academy graduates (Messi, Rafinha and Sergi Roberto) in the starting XI, and just one of them was Catalan (Sergi).
Sporting director Robert Fernandez says there are up to five youngsters in the academy he expects to be with the first team within two to three seasons. Some of them might be in the Juvenil A (under-19s) side, who travel to Nyon for the semifinals of the UEFA Youth League against Red Bull Salzburg on Friday. But is that enough to regenerate Barcelona once more?
What it is like being a part of La Masia?
It's not a normal week for Alasana Manneh. In fact, it's not been a normal year. The 18-year-old from Gambia joined Barca last summer after impressing at the Aspire Academy in Qatar, which he'd joined having previously played at the Aspire Football Dreams centre in Senegal.
"When I first came here it was a big surprise to me," the quiet teenager, who couldn't make his debut until October due to bureaucratic issues, told ESPN FC at an open training session at Ciutat Esportiva. "It was a surprise to me, because to play for Barcelona is a great thing. It's true it's difficult to leave your home, your family... the language, but as a football player you have to be ready to go anywhere. The adaption has been OK. I have been living this life for five years so I have been able to manage it."
Having recently suffered a high profile transfer-ban for breaking FIFA's rules when signing minors, the Catalan club are extremely wary these days when it comes to young players. But they are the heartbeat of a club that prides itself on homegrown talent.
"The first team guys are very nice," Manneh, who is one of 76 people who live on campus at La Masia, adds. "They push you, they encourage you to do more. But it's [important] to go step by step, not to get ahead of myself. Take my time, do what I have to do. Step by step you get the opportunity."
Manneh's attitude is mirrored across the Juvenil A squad. These are players playing at one of the biggest clubs in the world, coming through one of the most famous academies in football, yet very few of them get ahead of themselves. They are the values Barca insist on instilling in the youngsters at La Masia.
How important is UEFA Youth League success?
It's very rare Barcelona even allow the media access to anyone not in the first team -- though an exception was made this week.
"It has been a very different week, but one of good feelings because we are working very hard and we have to win on Friday," says Manneh. "We are ready for the Final Four and are ready to meet our objectives. For the moment we are focusing on getting to the final, that's the next step. For that, we have to win against [Salzburg]. We have been thinking about the final and a [possible] game against [Real] Madrid, but right now we have to think about the semifinal."
Barca had topped a group including Manchester City, Celtic and Borussia Monchengladbach -- with those fixtures mirrored the first-team's in the Champions League -- and beat Dortmund and Porto on the way to the semifinals. But coach Gabri Garcia, who spent seven years in Barca's first-team having come through La Masia himself, is taking nothing for granted.
"[Salzburg] have had a brilliant run to this stage, knocking out big sides like PSG, Man City and Atletico," he warned. "We've studied them and we know they're a special team. They work hard, press well and have good individuals in attack. They're a well-rounded side.
"It would be wrong to think about Madrid [who play Benfica in the other semifinal]. The first thing is to reach the final. If it's against Madrid then it will be even more special. It would demonstrate the level of Spanish football. It's important to highlight that things are being done well in youth football here."
What are the prospects for first-team progress?
Winning the UEFA Youth League would be welcome, but what people really want to know is who are the stars of this team? Who has a future in front of 100,000 supporters at Camp Nou?
Left-back Marc Cucurella has never been the obvious candidate, but his consistency has seen him take huge strides forward this season and he's already progressed to the Barca B team.
Goalkeeper Sergi Puig and forward Jordi Mboula have also had minutes in Spain's third division. Mboula's stunning individual goal against Dortmund singles him out as a potential matchwinner, but there are also concerns those moments are too sporadic.
The sad reality is, though, that very few of these players will have a chance of making the first team. Many may not even play top flight football.
Barca won the inaugural Youth League in 2014 and the whereabouts of that squad now is telling. Only five remain at the club. The only one with extensive first-team experience is Munir El Haddadi, now on loan at Valencia, and only two have made appearances in any of Europe's top five leagues this season: Munir and Middlesbrough's Adama Traore. Keep in mind these are all players in their early 20s now and a large number of them play for B teams -- be that at Barcelona, Celta Vigo or Cordoba.
"It's true that the percentage of players who reach the first team is very low," says Gabri. "It's complicated. But that is why we are here, so that all the time there's a better chance of more players making it to the top. The Youth League is a competition that can help us to do that.
"This team is really mature, they've demonstrated that throughout the year. We've known how to control emotions, even when behind in ties and having to come back. We kept competing. The club won the inaugural edition and we want more. It's not easy to get here and everyone gives a lot of importance to it."
What does the future hold?
The Juvenil A team go to Nyon having already wrapped up their league title, while Barca B hope to regain promotion to Spanish football's second tier this season. A large majority of the club's youth teams will win their leagues, but that's nothing new, given many play in regionalised divisions and their resources dwarf those of their rivals.
There has been investment in La Masia throughout the last decade -- it was relocated to its current location in 2006, leaving the farmhouse next to Camp Nou behind -- and even if results in terms of player progression suggest otherwise, Barca still do things the same way. They still preach the same values from the youngest to the eldest players and the focus is on the style first -- the results usually follow.
"We can play in different ways, but [always] in the Barcelona way," Alasana adds. "But what the coach is trying to play now is a different formation, he always tries to keep changing things."
Under Gerard Lopez, the B team have those same qualities and local newspaper Diario Sport is adamant La Masia will regain its importance next season. Carles Alena, who was on the bench against Juventus on Wednesday, has been dubbed as one of the brightest players to emerge in recent years, with Sergi Palencia, Marlon Santos, Marc Cardona, Ferran Sarsanedas and Alex Carbonell are also tipped to be in and around the first team. Gerard Deulofeu and Sergi Samper could return, too, from Everton and Granada respectively.
Alena, in fact, is still among the players who could play for the Juvenil A team in Switzerland this week. Barca, though, ignore the option to pick three players from the 1997 generation, preferring to focus on player development than winning trophies.
"At the recent managers' congress we spoke against being able to have players a year older," Gabri said. "This is still youth football and those that drop down are already in professional football. If we want the conditions to be fair, we don't believe they should play. Other teams take advantage of that rule and it goes well, but we won't."
Barca hope putting development over winning will help them grow the next Pique, Iniesta and Messi. And, on Monday, they hope to become the second team to win the Youth League twice since its 2014 inauguration -- Chelsea won it in 2015 and 2016. It would be especially sweet if it is against Madrid in a mini-Clasico, but any success would certainly calm the fears of the Barcelona fans about the future of the club.
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.