MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 25: Martin Montoya of Barcelona is chased by Ibai Gomez of Athletic Bilbao during the Copa del Rey Final match between Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona at Vicente Calderon Stadium on May 25, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Getty Images)
Taking a step away from the best goals of the season gone by it’s time to revisit the Blaugrana players and crown our best new La Masia graduate (thanks Al!). The rules are simple; to qualify the player in question had to play for the B team either at the start of this season, or last season, therefore La Masia grads like Lionel Messi do not meet the criteria, nor does Cesc Fàbregas who was a La Masia graduate, and is in his first season with the first team, but obviously played for Arsenal last season. With that in mind, here are the four nominees:
Just in case you missed them, you can vote for who you think has been the best signing here, here's the link to the nominees for the Best Player award, and here is the link for the Most Improved Player award.
Just two years ago, Cristian Tello was registered on the books of Segunda Division B side Espanyol B, and now he is on the brink of the Barcelona first team. With the greatest of respect to Espanyol, that’s one hell of a meteoric rise. When the season started few would have suggested that Tello was on the cusp of a breakthrough, but impressive early season form for the B team coupled with a growing injury crisis led to Tello making his debut in the second leg of the Copa del Rey tie with Hospitalet, and the rest is history! A brace on that day caught the eye of Pep Guardiola, and with the injury crisis continuing to grow Tello made his league debut against Villarreal. Even in that 15 minute cameo it was clear that Cristian Tello was something different; something special. His pace and skill made him a difficult opponent and crucially it opened up space for the likes of Lionel Messi. So, when Tello made his first start a week later, no-one was surprised when he capped it off with a well-taken goal. While Tello faded towards the end of the season, most notably in the Clasico, his debut season was impressive with his brace against Bayer Leverkusen the clear highlight. Whether he is loaned out, or continues to make an impact off the bench, the future looks bright for Tello.
Much like Cristian Tello, Cuenca was an unexpected promote this season, coming entirely out of left field having played last season on loan to Sabadell in the third division. His performances out on loan didn’t exactly set pulses racing – at least back in the Catalan capital – but he did start the season on the wing for Eusebio’s B team. Cuenca was used on a couple of occasions as a cameo in the final minutes for the senior team, and therefore it must have been in training where he caught Guardiola’s eye. Cuenca (much like Tello) has been a breath of fresh air in a sometimes predictable Barcelona offense, offering width and pace, not to mention a world-class final ball from out wide. With the wealth of options in the middle, it is rare for La Masia to produce such a "true" winger, a real throwback to years gone by. Cuenca can cut inside and his shot is good, but his ability to stretch opposition defenses laterally is unparalleled, as reflected by his seven appearances in European competitions. Guardiola valued Cuenca as a potent tactical weapon, and one can only assume that Tito feels similar. If so, then Cuenca could establish himself as a very useful option over the coming season.
It almost seems like cheating to include Thiago in this category, but he does meet the criteria. After all, he started last season as a B team player, and was only promoted last January, almost making him the Isaac Cuenca of 2011. Thiago’s pre-season was hugely impressive, with goals against Bayern Munich and Manchester United earning him a start in the Supercopa against Real Madrid. Even against the eventual league champions at the Bernabeu, he did not seem out of place, serving as an adequate replacement for Xavi. However, the absence of Sergio Busquets in that match meant that Xavi was always going to be brought on at some stage. Thiago has been growing both as an individual and as a team player over the past season and offers something different in midfield. More skilful than the likes of Xavi and Cesc, he also tracks back well and holds his own in physical battles as evidenced in his dominant display against Athletic Bilbao at the Camp Nou.
Montoya hasn’t been promoted yet, but it would have unfair to leave him out given his performances this season. Standing in for Dani Alves must be a difficult task given the standards the Brazilian sets, but Montoya looks right at home no matter the opponent. Defensively he is arguably better than Alves, while he is no slouch on the attacking side of things either. Montoya started the Copa del Rey final after Alves’ injury and many, how shall we say, misinformed journalists suggested that he would be a weak-link for Iker Muniain and co to exploit. 90 minutes and a clean sheet later, it was clear for the world to see, Alves or no Alves, Montoya is going to push for a starting berth sooner rather than later.
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