By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
The timing appeared almost poetic. As Catalans flocked to the polling booths to vote in the region's elections on Sunday, many pushing for secession from Spain, their flagship football team fielded 11 homegrown heroes together for the first time at the highest level - and moved 11 points clear of rivals Real Madrid in La Liga. Barcelona, with a team made entirely in La Masia, had once again shown itself to be symbolic of Catalan independence.
When Martin Montoya replaced the injured Dani Alves after 15 minutes at the Ciutat de Valencia against Levante, Barca's side was made up solely of players who had graduated from the club's esteemed academy. In total, there were eight Catalans on the field for the visitors, although it was two of the other three players in orange and yellow who stole the show for Tito Vilanova's team.
|BARCELONA'S HOMEGROWN HEROES
|Martin Montoya (on for Alves)||Catalan|
And so the Catalans' 11 canteranos struck a symbolic blow for Barca on the day their people headed to the polls - many in search of independence. And Vilanova's team are now 11 points clear of Madrid after just 14 rounds of matches. On Sunday, they equalled the best-ever start to a Primera Division campaign - that of Radomir Antic's Real side in 1991-92.
A word of warning for the league leaders, however: Madrid did not win the title that year, losing out on the final day of the season to Johan Cruyff's 'dream team'.
Cruyff was responsible for the construction of La Masia in the first place, telling Barca president Josep Lluis Nunez on his departure from Camp Nou as a player that the club needed an academy to be able to compete with Madrid. That was in 1978 and 34 years later the Catalans claimed independence - on the pitch at least - by fielding an entire team of homegrown players at the same time for an hour, between the 15th and 75th minute, when Adriano replaced Jordi Alba. Thiago then came on to make it 12 La Masia graduates out of a total of 14 players used. By then, the academy had already made history.
It is a stark contrast to Madrid, Jose Mourinho and the capital club's much-maligned cantera policy, which has come in for criticism again this season, despite Alvaro Morata's recent winning goal for the champions - also at Levante.
Madrid are now in Barca's wake and it is Atletico hanging on to the Catalans' coat-tails with just three points fewer than the Liga leaders. Tito's team will be taking nothing for granted but now appear to be in a strong position in the race for the title - albeit only in November. In the 11th month, Barca moved 11 clear of their fiercest rivals, and - in what is an unprecedented statistic in the modern era - with 11 canteranos on the pitch at once. Keep this up and the current campaign may yet be remembered as the title made in La Masia.
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