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More injuries force Barcelona to call on youngsters

Coming off the last international break, the outlook was fairly bleak at Barcelona. Each of Sergi Roberto, Ivan Rakitic, Jasper Cillessen, Jordi Alba, and Samuel Umtiti were sidelined with injuries while crucial Primera and Champions League matches loomed. Still, this was far from rock bottom. After all, the likes of Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, and Neymar were all fit, and, more importantly, Lionel Messi himself was just days away from making his long-awaited and much-needed return from a groin strain. Yes, Barca’s Messi-less run from September 21st to October 15th saw them struggle at times, eventually collapsing in a 3-4 away loss to Celta Vigo. But that was all about to be over, right?

Not so fast.

It appears that the shadow hanging over Camp Nou wasn’t dead but, as luck and irony would have it, wounded. It first reappeared emphatically in Barcelona’s midweek Champions League group match win against Manchester City when both Gerard Pique and Jordi Alba were forced off with injuries. Pique’s ankle injury received a timetable of three weeks, while Alba’s recurring hamstring problem got two. Later that week in training, Rafinha bruised a rib, keeping him out indefinitely.

There’s more.

Three days later, Andres Iniesta was taken down by Enzo Perez in Barcelona’s 3-2 Liga win at Mestalla. In what looked to be a potentially horrific injury was later confirmed by Barca doctors to be just some LCL damage, giving him up to eight weeks at home rather than six months; a miniscule hint of a silver lining.

Then, to top it all off, Jeremy Mathieu suffered a calf injury in Tuesday’s Copa Catalunya victory over Espanyol. The knock will keep the Frenchman out of action for three weeks. Oh yeah, Arda Turan, who was just returning from an elbow contusion, also went down versus Espanyol with an ankle injury making him unavailable for the next week at the very least. So yes, Messi is back, but the physio room at Camp Nou stays plenty full. 

So what to do now? Luis Enrique’s first course of action following this new string of outs was to call-up La Masia gem Carles Alena to the first-team. The 18-year-old joined the 18-man squad that faced City, as well as the one that traveled to Valencia. All reports point to him once again taking a substitute role on Saturday against Granada. Although the wonderfully talented playmaker has an immense future ahead of him, Alena has yet to feature in a full competitive match for Barca.

While a surplus of healthy attacking midfielders (Ivan Rakitic, Denis Suarez, Andre Gomes, etc.) could keep Alena out of the first-team for quite some time, no such issue exists toward the back-end of the pitch, making Lucho’s inclusion of reserve defender Marlon Santos for this weekend’s affair all-the-more significant.

With Pique and Mathieu injured, Marlon could very well be tossed into the Liga fire as soon as this Saturday. Apart from two preseason fixtures, the 21-year-old Fluminense loanee has not yet suited up for Lucho’s senior side. He has, however, made a few Barcelona B appearances thus far this season — despite a dodgy work visa situation stunting his early campaign — garnering a mixed bag of reviews. But recent clean sheets do suggest that he may have finally found his feet in Catalunya. He’ll need to be on those feet, too. With Javier Mascherano and Umtiti being the only two fit centre-halves going into the weekend, Marlon is basically a papercut away from tasting some real Primera action.

But the impending promotion of Marlon to the first-team, and the relative surprise of it, is illustrative of a bigger issue at Barcelona.

Many cules have been up-in-arms for years now over Luis Enrique and his — what they believe to be — disregard of Barca’s La Masia youth academy. There are understandable reasons for this sentiment. After all, the Pep Guardiola era — in which a Dream Team was somewhat serendipitously assembled out of the Farmhouse’s allustrious talents — was fruitful in unfathomable ways, grabbing 14 trophies and every plaudit from every end of the football-loving Earth. But when Guardiola left Catalunya, and a new regime was charged with finding new, fresh ways to keep on winning — and as Masia grads like Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol moved on in their lives and careers — the mood around the club, the team, and the stands began to change.

Fans started to deride Enrique’s vision for the first-team. As Neymar and Luis Suarez came in to form a beastly trident with Lionel Messi at the head of Barca’s attack, the Spanish boss started to lean more heavily on them. The tiki-taka-ness of the Pep days casually progressed into a more direct, yet still thoroughly beautiful footballing form. But because it wasn’t Xavi putting together a hundred-plus passes through a mazy midfield of Masia madness, the Pep devotees mocked it, and still do.

The Marlon elevation is one of those (un)fortunate events that will once again pit the Lucho Army against Pep’s Pals. If Marlon struggles, the Enrique apologists will ensure it’s because he wasn’t ready and was only called upon out of desperation. Of course, if he soars in the first-team the Guardiola truthers will shout the loudest “WE TOLD YOU SO” ever heard east of the Atlantic.

As always, the truth lies in the nuance. Enrique should have built up enough goodwill with Barca supporters — through years of constant winning and organizing one of the most fearsome attacking units the world has ever seen — at this point. But it can also be helpful to use the past work of Guardiola, Rijkaard, Cruyff, and many others to influence business of the now. Especially, when those golden days were so emphatically successful and pioneering. Never forget what you’ve done, but also allow yourself to grow and change.

What Barcelona fans will eventually have to accept is that Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi were and are virtual unicorns. They’re the rarest of the rare. The groundskeepers could spray the Masia pitches with holy water everyday, and they’d never reproduce those four years between 2008 and 2012, nor the players that spearheaded them. Just like Sergi Samper likely won’t be the next Sergi Busquets, Munir probably won’t be the next Messi, and Marlon not the next Pique.

Luckily for these combative cules, Enrique and his players don’t seem to reside within this “Then vs Now” divide. There have been no reports of dressing room disputes and, even with constant roster shuffling, the team keeps on thriving and scoring and winning. There is no crisis for Lucho’s boys, even if some fans desperately wish there was.

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