It’s not often that someone can say that there is any individual or team that can serve as an example to follow for Barcelona’s first team. Widley regarded as the best team in the world, the Blaugranas are usually the example to follow. At this stage of the season though, with the first leg of the team’s crunch Champions League tie against Juventus, the first team could do worse than take a look down the ladder at Can Barça. Barcelona’s women team and the Juvenil A team, have already gotten to the stage that Luis Enrique’s team aims to reach, and there are a couple of lessons to be learned.
We will start with Gabri García’s Juvenil A side. The former Barcelona midfielder has been in charge of Barcelona’s U19s since last year, but it hasn’t been a smooth ride. If anything, the ride has been quite rough, with last season ending in disappointment. This year though, with a clearly talented batch of players coming through, Gabri has overseen a spectacular turnaround. With the 1998-1999 generation coming of age under his tutelage, Gabri’s Juvenil A side is a team of seemingly endless squad depth. No matter who is absent, those deputising have always made sure that the team performs at a consistently high level.
Of course, there are some shining stars. First the Fantastic Four of 1998, captain Eric Montes, Marc Cucurella, Dani Morer and Carles Pérez. The first three make the backline gel, while winger Pérez provides the magic up front. 1999-born Jordi Mboula is also good help, although he is equally capable of long frustrating periods and moments of pure brilliance. The one who has caught the eye though is Abel Ruiz. The forward is the team’s youngest player, yet at the tender age of 17, he is one of Europe’s most sought after forwards. Barcelona beat off competition from half the Premier League and all of Spain’s elite to sign him from Valencia, and he is justifying all the hype. Although not as prolific as one might think, he is a real fox in the box, a tireless worker and a scorer of crucial goals.
One who has been rather stagnant is the once super-promising Seung-Woo Lee, but the South Korean was probably the worst affected La Masia player by the FIFA ban. The team hasn’t lost too much though, as they secured the Liga División de Honor Juvenil title for their regional group last weekend with a game to spare. Their biggest success though has been on the continental stage, where they have restored La Masia’s good name. After two dramatic comebacks in the round of 16 and in the quarter finals against Borussia Dortmund and Porto respectively, the team has secured a ticket for April’s UEFA Youth League Final Four in Nyon, Switzerland. Gabri’s boys will be seeking to emulate the achievements of Munir El Haddadi and Co. in 2013-14, when Jordi Vinyals’ side won the inaugural edition of the UEFA Youth League with a 3-0 final win over Benfica.
This year, Juvenil A have a semi-final tie against Salzburg, and if Lady Luck permits it, the Youth League could have its first clásico final (Real Madrid’s side are up against Benfica in the other semi-final). The end of the season for the Juvenil A is shaping up as a thrilling one, given that the national finals of the Copa de Campeones and the Copa del Rey are also coming up.
A team that has not had so much domestic success is Barcelona’s women’s side, but the girls led by Xavi Llorens don’t seem to have given up just yet. After all they have just produced one of the biggest fairytales in the history of the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Last week, the Blaugranas beat heavily fancied Rosengard, a Swedish side containing women football’s most decorated player, Marta, to reach the semi-finals for the first time in the club’s history.
The size of the women team’s achievement can be considered only if things are put into perspective. The other Cinderella of the semi-finals is Manchester City. The only issue with Manchester City is that the Emirati group controlling City have also poured their petrodollars into the women’s side. A team that had won nothing until 2014, is now in contention for five titles (4 domestic and the Champions League). City are so rich that they have been able to sign USWNT midfielder Carli Lloyd, winner of FIFA’s ‘The Best’ award for 2016.
The difference that the Sky Blues have with Barcelona is that the Blaugranas, under the long term father-like guidance of Xavi Llorens, a man who coached Lionel Messi at La Masia, have always dominated domestically. Women’s football in Spain is seriously underdeveloped when compared to the UK, France, Germany, Sweden or the States. Barcelona have always produced the best women players, and have complemented them with equally classy signings.
Things have recently changed though. Other sides like Atlético Madrid or Athletic Bilbao, have chosen to make serious investments in their women’s sides. Barcelona’s star forward Marta Corredera was poached by the rojiblancos, while metronomic midfielders Virginia Torrecilla and Vicky Losada left for the better leagues in France and England respectively. Former captain Losada is back, but Barcelona now face some serious competition in Spain.
The focus has turned though to European success. Llorens has managed to sustain a core of Spanish internationals, led by centre-back Marta Unzué. Unzué is the niece of Luis Enrique’s assistant Juan Carlos Unzué and daughter of Unzué’s brother Eusebio, who runs the Movistar cycling team. Captain Marta Unzué, embodies the spirit of Llorens’ team: hard work and sacrifice for the team. That’s exactly how the Blaugranas managed to oust Rosengard to set up a semi-final tie against French powerhouse Paris Saint Germain.
Of course, they had a little help from some new signings. Women’s football is currently experiencing an era of French domination. Lyon won the Champions League last year, and have compiled a star-studded side. Barça cleverly poached in France last summer, signing Brazilian international forward Andressa Alves from Montpellier and Danish centre-back Line Roddik from Lyon. Despite the new imports’ undeniable impact, the team always falls back on the shoulders of its own Andrés Iniesta, Jenny Hermoso.
After defending for their lives over two legs against Rosengard, Llorens’ girls will now aim to get revenge for last year’s elimination at the hands of PSG. Their spirit will ensure that they won’t fall without a fight. It a mindset that Luis Enrique’s pupils can put to good use when they start their attempt to become the third Barcelona side in the Champions League semi-finals in a week’s time.