17-year-old Pau Cubarsí is latest academy player to come through for Barcelona’s senior team

17-year-old Pau Cubarsí is latest academy player to come through for Barcelona’s senior team

Barcelona's Pau Cubarsi, right, and Barcelona's Ronald Araujo celebrate after the Champions League, round of 16, second leg soccer match between FC Barcelona and SSC Napoli at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain, Tuesday, March 12, 2024. (AP Photo/Joan Monfort)

MADRID (AP) — The La Masia youth academy keeps churning out talent for Barcelona.

Yet another youngster from the club’s famed youth system has impressed when called upon to take a prominent role with the senior team. This time it was 17-year-old central defender Pau Cubarsí, who was key in the Catalan club’s win against Napoli in the round of 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday.

In what was his European debut, Cubarsí was named the man of the match as Barcelona won 3-1 and advanced 4-2 on aggregate to return to the competition’s quarterfinals for the first time in four years.

“It’s one of these players for life, another one that comes from La Masia,” veteran Barcelona midfielder Sergi Roberto said. “When we say that this club is more than a club, it’s because of things like this, because of this belief in the home-grown players.”

Unable to spend much on new signings because of its financial struggles, Barcelona has been taking a risk by giving its youngsters more chances instead.

Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati made their debut as teenagers not long ago, and most recently it was 16-year-old Lamine Yamal attracting headlines after thriving with the senior squad.

Yamal also played well on Tuesday to help Barcelona advance. One of the team’s goals was scored by 20-year-old Fermín López, another player brought up by La Masia.

The most famous player to make it from La Masia was Lionel Messi, who spent nearly two decades at Barcelona before joining Paris Saint-Germain in 2021 amid the Catalan club’s financial difficulties.

Cubarsí, known for his precise tackles, calmness and accurate passing in transition, became the youngest player to debut in the knockout stage of the Champions League.

“It was one of the best days of my life,” Cubarsí said. “Very happy with the (man of the match) trophy and with the club returning to the quarterfinals after some difficult years.”

Coach Xavi Hernández, who also came through Barcelona’s youth system, has been using Cubarsí often as a starter, and the youngster hasn’t disappointed.

“Pau is emerging as a great talent for Barcelona and Spain,” Xavi said. “He has a fantastically organized and clear mind and is humble and hard-working. It is a spectacle to watch him. When he has the ball, my heart rate does not increase. He has the calmness to generate attacking plays.”

Cubarsí has been a regular for Spain’s national youth teams and many local pundits are saying he already deserves a chance with “La Roja’s” senior team.

Cubarsí made his first-team debut for Barcelona in a Copa del Rey match in January.

Ronald Araujo, who played alongside Cubarsí against Napoli, called his teammate “the future of this club.”

“He has spectacular talent,” Araujo said. “We hope that he can keep playing like this for many years.”

Among the La Masia players who have succeeded briefly with Barcelona’s senior team before leaving to join other clubs included Riqui Puig, Nico González, Ilaix Moriba and Adama Traoré.

Barcelona is the defending Spanish league champion but trails leader Real Madrid by eight points with 10 matches remaining. It sits in third place, one point behind second-place Girona. Barcelona’s next league match is at fourth-place Atletico Madrid on Sunday.

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