x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Thiago Alcantara bangs hard at Barcelona's first-team door

With a flurry of big matches ahead, Pep Guardiola's decision to rotate his squad was not paying off as he had hoped - but up stepped a Brazilian teenager.

Over an hour had gone at Camp Nou on Saturday and Barcelona, the league leaders, were being held 1-1 by bottom of the table Almeria. This was not what the 80,000 home fans were expecting, nor the 27 travelling supporters.

With a flurry of big matches ahead, Pep Guardiola's decision to rotate his squad was not paying off as he had hoped.

First-team regulars such as Victor Valdes, Carles Puyol, David Villa and Sergio Busquets watched nervously from the directors' box as fringe players Pinto, Gabi Milito and Thiago Alcantara enjoyed rare starts.

Barca got their breakthrough from a 63rd-minute corner when Thiago rose above Santi, the Almeria captain, to head in the second goal. The 19-year-old, his arms covered in tattoos, celebrated with teammates before leaving the field to generous applause and a handshake from his manager four minutes later.

Ahead of Barca's Champions League home game against Arsenal recently, Guardiola was asked about the Gunners' Jack Wilshere. He was complimentary, but pointed out that he had several similar players in his B team. It was not the slur that the English media took it to be, but an honest and accurate opinion. Thiago, who turned 20 yesterday, is one of these.

The son of the Brazilian 1994 World Cup winner Mazinho (who famously rocked an imaginary baby in goal celebrations with Bebeto and Romario), Thiago was born in Bari, Italy, where his defensive midfielder father was playing with Lecce.

His youth was spent following his father's career. Thiago played at youth level in Rio de Janeiro for Flamengo either side of a five-year stint in Spain's Galicia region - Mazinho played for Celta Vigo - before the family settled in a Barcelona suburb. Sport is in the family genes, with mother Valeria a former semi-professional volleyball player.

Younger brother Rafinha, 18, recently made his Barca B debut, treading the well-worn path followed by the pearls of Barca's cantera.

Thiago, an attacking midfielder had risen through the ranks and made his B team debut aged 16 - the age he decided to represent Spain at youth level. He has since played for Spain at every age group and is now established in the Under 21 side.

Thiago made his Barca first-team debut against Mallorca at the end of the 2008/09 season and made another start last season, but chances have been limited given the surfeit of world-class midfielders ahead of him.

At times Thiago's frustrations have led him to demand more first-team minutes or be loaned elsewhere, with Guardiola urging him to be patient and telling him that he will get his chance. Guardiola has been true to his word and Thiago has started 13 times this term.

Thiago could do worse than compare himself with those he is trying to emulate. He has started more games than Sergio Busquets and Pedro at the same age, while Andres Iniesta made just six league starts in his first season with the first team.

Most of his football has come with Barca B, who are third in the second division (but unable to get promoted because of league rules) - the ideal stepping stone for future progress.

Publicly he describes being in the first team as a "reward" adding "the reserve-team players are there to help. We're ready for anything they might ask of us."

The B team may not go up, but Thiago will be promoted to the first-team squad proper in the summer. A diminutive, elegant, midfielder schooled in the classic Barca mould, many fans are questioning why Barca should be preparing to pay upwards of €40 million (Dh212m) for Cesc Fabregas in the summer when they have a top-quality emerging talent in Thiago for free.

If Fabregas were to come back to Barca, it could limit Thiago's progress and, as he showed against Almeria, he is looking more comfortable in the first team with each game.

sports@thenational.ae