In the star-packed squads of Barcelona and Real Madrid, it’s tough for talented youngsters to emerge from obscurity.
Barcelona’s Carles Alena and Madrid’s Marcos Llorente made the most of their chances to shine on the weekend in the Spanish league, as both midfielders impressed in victories for their injury-hit teams.
The 20-year-old Alena gave Barcelona a 2-0 win over Villarreal on Sunday with a coolly executed chip of onrushing goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo. The goal came after Alena recovered the ball in midfield and linked up with Lionel Messi, who met his run forward with a pass through four defenders.
It was Alena’s first goal in the Spanish league and his first one at Barcelona’s stadium.
“The first one is always special but this one was even more so, coming here at Camp Nou at that stage of the match, with the pass coming from Messi,” Alena said. “Only he can see that pass. I would never have imagined a goal like that even in my dreams.”
Messi, along with teammates Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto, are all products of Barcelona’s La Masia training academy. They are the last group of top players to come from the famed school, which previously produced Spain greats Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol, as well as player-turned-coach Pep Guardiola.
But no youth player has earned an important spot in Barcelona’s rotation since Roberto became a starter in 2015. Since then, the club has used the transfer market to renew its squad.
Coach Ernesto Valverde turned to Alena as a second-half substitute against Villarreal after a spate of injuries sidelined several first-choice players, including fellow midfielders Arthur and Rafinha, along with Roberto and striker Luis Suarez.
Alena’s only previous goal came on his debut two seasons ago in the Copa del Rey. In the meantime, he has performed well for the reserves while waiting for another shot with the senior team.
“It’s about making the most of your opportunities,” Alena said. “I try to make the most of them in the Copa and did so again today. It’s about being there at the right time and giving your coach a difficult choice when picking his lineups.”
Needing to find a backup to injured holding midfielder Casemiro, Santiago Solari dug deep into his squad until he found the little-used Llorente.
Practically forgotten by his predecessor Julen Lopetegui, Llorente had played a total of 11 minutes this season before Solari took over the team in late October.
But after seeing Dani Ceballos was not up to the task of playing a defensive role in midfield — when Madrid lost 3-0 at Eibar — Solari made the surprise move of giving Llorente a try.
With his hustle and error-free passing, Llorente performed admirably in Madrid’s 2-0 win at Roma to win their Champions League group on Tuesday. Solari picked Llorente again on Saturday, and he helped his team keep a second straight clean sheet in a 2-0 win over Valencia.
The 23-year-old Llorente came up through Madrid’s academy before excelling on a one-season loan to Alaves in 2016-17. But under coach Zinedine Zindane last season, he only made 13 appearances in the league.
“Marcos proved up to the task for the big matches that he had gotten to play,” Solari said. “It’s fantastic. This is what makes teams solid.”
Diego Costa, who has been suffering pain in his right foot in recent weeks, cued Atletico Madrid’s equalizer on Sunday to salvage a 1-1 draw at Girona.
When teammate Angel Correa stole the ball in midfield with Girona trying to seek a second goal, Costa saw his chance to catch the defense off-balance. His sprint down the middle was spotted by Correa, whose long lob was controlled by Costa before a panicking defender tapped the ball into his own net.
Local media reports that Costa is having trouble with his right foot, which he needed surgery on a decade ago to implant a screw. There is speculation that he may need surgery again.
Atletico coach Diego Simone only had words of praise for his striker.
“You saw Diego Costa in his purest state today,” Simeone said after the win on Sunday. “The truth is that he is making an enormous effort playing on his foot, which isn’t healthy. He put his soul into every move he made in today’s match.”