Hit by injuries, Barca turns again to youth factory

<p>
              FC Barcelona player Ansu Fati, second right, is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the Spanish La Liga soccer match against Osasuna, at El Sadar stadium, in Pamplona, northern Spain, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)
            </p>

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — With its top scorers hit by injuries, Barcelona has returned to basics.

Gone are the days when Barcelona’s youth training academy produced star after star, churning out Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Gerard Pique, among others.

The last product of La Masia academy to become a regular start for Barcelona was Sergi Roberto, who earned his spot on the squad in 2013. Otherwise, Barcelona now builds its squad through purchasing talented players from other clubs.

But with Messi, Luis Suárez and Ousmane Dembele all injured, coach Ernesto Valverde has been forced to turn to the club’s promising youths, who suddenly have an unexpected opportunity to fill in for the team’s stars.

Seeing his team trailing 1-0 at Osasuna on Saturday, Valverde looked to his short bench and entrusted the young and untested Ansu Fati to spark a comeback. The teenage striker rose to the challenge, outjumping his mark to score a perfectly placed header just inside the post.

That goal made the teenager from Guinea-Bissau the youngest player to ever score in La Liga for Barcelona at the age of 16 years and 304 days. Fati belongs to Barcelona’s third team, made up of 16-18-year-old players.

The cross that Fati neatly turned home came from Carles Pérez, a 21-year-old “B-team” forward who scored in last round’s 5-2 thrashing of Real Betis. Fati made his first-team debut in that win over Betis.

“Despite the injuries we went out there with some young players who showed what they can do,” said Pique, who committed a late hand ball that allowed Osasuna to level the final score at 2-2.

COSTA’S RETURN

Diego Costa, who appeared close to leaving Atlético Madrid this summer, played his first match since being suspended for eight Spanish league games at the end of last campaign on Sunday.

He helped start a rally from two goals down to beat Eibar 3-2 by setting up João Félix.

Otherwise, he still had the same trouble finding the net that has plagued him since returning to Atético from Chelsea midway through the 2017-18 season. Since then, he has scored 12 goals in 44 matches and had his playing time reduced by injuries.

He missed a clear early chance from close range and then had two goals waived off for off-sides against Eibar.

Costa’s 2017-18 season was cut short by an eight-game ban he incurred for insulting a referee after being sent off in a decisive loss at Barcelona that ended Atlético’s title chances. He missed the final seven league games of last season and then injured his left thigh last month, ruling him out for the first two rounds.

But the Brazilian-born Spain striker showed against Eibar that he remains a terror for opposing defenders with his imposing size, knack for battling high balls, and his apparent love of being a nuisance.

FEKIR LEADS BETIS

Betis’ signing of attacking midfielder Nabil Fekir from Lyon for just under 20 million euros (22 million dollars), plus another possible 10 million euros in add-ons, could turn out to a bargain.

Fekir, a world champion with France, arrived to Seville to fill the gap left by Giovani lo Celso, who left for Tottenham after his superb season last year.

He has already won over Betis’ supporters with two goals in three matches. He briefly gave Betis the lead at Camp Nou in round 2 before Barcelona roared back.

Fekir’s second goal was worth three points, when he completed a 2-1 comeback over Leganes on Saturday.

“Nabil is an incredible player, a silent leader on the pitch and a complete player,” said Betis coach Rubi. “We love this player.”