What do Pep Guardiola, Xavi Hernandez, Andrés Iniesta, Francesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets all have in common? They are/were all world class midfielders and they were all raised in La Masia, Barcelona's famed youth academy. Besides, they all (except Fabregas) led Barcelona to great success over the years..
The next in line is Thiago Alcantara. The 20-year-old prodigy has been hailed by Pep Guardiola as "better than Xavi and Iniesta at his age". Alcantara is so outrageously talented that it seems a foregone conclusion that he will go on to be one of the best players in the world for many years to come. He fully displayed this talent in the rare opportunities he was given last season and in the recent Under 21 European Championship, where he was the best player in the tournament and led Spain to victory.
But it's very difficult for a young midfielder to succeed at Barcelona. Xavi Hernandez and Andrés Iniesta are the two best midfielders in the world, certainly among the greatest midfielders the sport has ever seen. No matter how talented Thiago might be, there's just no way a 20-year-old can displace Xavi and Iniesta.
But at the same time Thiago is way too talented to spend the entire season watching from the sidelines, and Pep Guardiola knows that better than anyone. While Xavi and Iniesta will remain the indisputable first options, it's safe to assume that Pep Guardiola will give young Alcantara plenty of opportunities to prove his worth.
Playing alongside legends like Xavi and Iniesta is the best possible way for a young player to learn and develop. Thiago's path seems very clear: he will learn from Xavi and Iniesta, steadily grow as a player and become more and more influential until the day he finally becomes one of the leaders of Barcelona's midfield. All in all, a pretty similar path to Xavi and Iniesta's before they became the players they are today.
Will Thiago Shine This Season?
Thiago has all the potential in the world, but he still makes the kind of mistakes you expect from such a young player. But just like he turned Sergio Busquets into a world beater, Pep Guardiola might very well do the same with Thiago very soon. The possible arrival of Cesc Fabregas might make life even more difficult for Alcantara, but if he's really got what it takes to triumph at Barcelona competition will only make him stronger. He has all the talent in the world and time is fully on his side.
You can't expect Thiago to instantly become a starter like Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets once did, not because he's less talented than them but because the competition he faces is much, much stronger. But you can certainly expect Alcantara to slowly but steady forge his own path to greatness, starting this season. He might not be a regular starter, but he's bound to play a role in Barcelona's success.
If all goes well, we'll be seeing a lot of Thiago Alcantara during the next decade. After all, as Pep said, he's even better than Xavi and Iniesta were at age 20. He'll continue the tradition of great La Masia midfielders.
2011/2012 will one day be remembered as the season where Thiago Alcantara took his first steps towards becoming an FC Barcelona legend!
You can follow me on Twitter @Manueltraquete.