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Antonio Sanabria: Should Roma Wonderkid Regret Leaving Barcelona?

Allan JiangTransfers CorrespondentDecember 10, 2014

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 2: Forward Antonio Sanabria #96 of AS Roma participates in the match against FC Internazionale Milano during the International Champions Cup on August 2, 2014 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When Antonio Sanabria turned his back on Barcelona for Roma, he may have dreamed of playing at the Stadio Olimpico in the UEFA Champions League against Manchester City.

Nowadays, the 18-year-old Paraguayan centre-forward is appearing in the UEFA Youth League on training grounds where some of the games are streamed via YouTube.

Quitting Barcelona has irreparably altered Sanabria's path. 

The multi-million-euro question will be whether it's to the betterment or detriment of his career.

Debuting for the Paraguay national team last August, Sanabria was subbed on for Roque Santa Cruz in a 3-3 draw against Germany. 

It was a changing of the guard: out with the veteran, in with the rising star. 

Prior to toiling away as a 33-year-old for Malaga scoring three goals in 773 minutes of La Liga play this season, Santa Cruz was one of the biggest prospects of his generation.

Nicknamed BabyGol, a reference to Gabriel "Batigol" Batistuta—a superstar Argentine No. 9—Santa Cruz was ordained as a can't-miss prospect, starring for Olimpia while still in high school. 

"My salary was $100 a month. It meant I could invite everyone from my class for a Coke or a sandwich. ... I was treated like a hero in class," Santa Cruz said, per Daniel Taylor of The Guardian.

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"Real Madrid wanted to sign me and, being Spanish-speaking, that would have been easier for me. ... But the [Olimpia] president wanted to go for the club who paid the most money."

German superclub Bayern Munich, the reigning Bundesliga winner and Champions League finalist at the time, won the Santa Cruz sweepstakes.

"To spend 10 million deutsche marks on a 17-year-old [in Santa Cruz] is always a bit of a gamble," then-Bayern Munich managing director Uli Hoeness said, per Reuters (h/t the New Straits Times). "But the guy really looks special."

Santa Cruz never became anything "special."

Injuries aside, his confidence was wrecked at Bayern Munich, because although he had the quality, he was the wrong fit. 

Credit: instagram.com/albirrojaparaguay.

Playing against Germany may have created delusions of grandeur in Sanabria's mind.

A month earlier, he was goalless in 228 minutes of play during the FIFA U-20 World Cup and was omitted from the "key players list," per FIFA.com

Still a Barcelona Juvenil A player, he was training with Eusebio Sacristan's Barcelona B team.

Heading into the 2014 January transfer window, Sanabria's agent, Raul Verdu, began a media campaign.

Verdu was strong-arming Barcelona management into promoting Sanabria into the first-team, despite him just joining the Barcelona B team.

"[Sanabria's] era at Barcelona B, although it has just started, is now over," Verdu said, per Radio 95.5 FM (h/t Football Espana). "He wants to get into the Barcelona first-team, but quickly, although the process has not been sped up."

Yes, upside is valuable, but productivity is more important.

Sanabria scored three goals in 10 Segunda Division games at a goal per 191 minutes. 

If he averaged 1.5 goals per game instead of 0.30 for Barcelona B, Verdu would be right to state a case for Sanabria being elevated into the first-team. 

Sanabria should have been content playing second-division football.

Negotiating with Arsenal, Verdu knew he was re-opening the Cesc Fabregas scars.

"Our contacts with Arsenal [over Sanabria] are in advanced [stages]," Verdu said, per John Cross at the Daily Mirror. "I expect a solution in the next week."

With the benefit of hindsight, Verdu was using Arsenal as leverage.

Sport Witness @Sport_Witness

Roma, not Arsenal, now favourites in the Sanabria cash dash. http://t.co/ZTECUunyaH http://t.co/qGpjMsYNqY

Then-Barcelona vice-president (now president) Josep Maria Bartomeu revealed money was the primary stumbling block—not lack of first-team opportunities. 

"We're trying to keep him [Sanabria] with the best possible offer we can make," Bartomeu said, per Sport (h/t Heath Chesters at Inside Spanish Football). "But there's a limit that we can't exceed."

On January 29, 2014, Barcelona announced Sanabria's departure.

Roma and Sassuolo were both involved in a deal for Sanabria costing €4.5 million/£3.6 million, with variables potentially reaching €12 million/£9.5 million, per FCBarcelona.com.

Sassuolo would temporarily hold Sanabria for the remainder of the 2013-14 season, and then he would play out the rest of his contract at Roma.

The starting No. 9 at Sassuolo was Simone Zaza, who was the club's No. 2 scorer (nine goals) behind Domenico Berardi (16 goals).

Zaza's backup was seasoned pro Sergio Floccari.

As a result, Sanabria only played 37 minutes spread over two substitute appearances in Serie A last season.

He started and finished on the Sassuolo bench six times.

Roma has been less welcoming. 

Instead of being Francesco Totti's heir apparent, Sanabria has yet even to compete with Mattia Destro.

Abandoning Segunda Division football at Barcelona B, Sanabria is lost in the shuffle at Roma.

Even outcast Salih Ucan has featured (barely) in Serie A, playing four minutes compared to Sanabria's zero.

This is the background story to Sanabria, who looked devoid of confidence and interest, during Roma's 4-0 defeat to Manchester City in the UEFA Youth League.

Manchester City prospects Brandon Barker and Jack Byrne exuded class, provided incisive play and were a step above everyone on the field.

Sanabria, a €4.5 million/£3.6 million-valued young gun with experience in the Segunda Division and Serie A, looked like he was still finding his feet. 

Watching Thierry Ambrose score for Manchester City symbolically illustrated Sanabria's uncertain future.

No wonder Sanabria only features on the third page of UEFA Youth League scorers this season.

Credit: instagram.com/luciano_sacchini.

What should further dent Sanabria's psyche is Munir El Haddadi and Sandro Ramirez receiving extended runs at Barcelona this season.

The message is clear: Sanabria, you should have been more patient at Barcelona.

Fabregas spoke about the dilemma Barcelona B players faced and explained why some opt out, per Santi Gimenez at AS

We're talking about 20 lads in the youth set-up who are very good players. If we're optimistic, at most two will make it to the first team. What happens to the other 18? They might end up in Segunda Division or [Spain's third tier] Segunda B, which is very respectable. But if a big club had come in for them, they'll never forgive themselves.

In Sanabria's case, he will never forgive himself for leaving Barcelona if his career ends up being as turbulent as Iago Falque's—never mind not living up to superstar expectations a la Santa Cruz.

Tonny Sanabria @tonny9sanabria

Me alegra ver a 2 amigos debutar en la Champions! @patric_6 y #Adama GRANDES ! Buenas noches a todos ! 👍 Salu2 http://t.co/GpRNI5WOpg

@allanjianga.

+allanjiang.

When not specified, statistics via WhoScored.com.

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