UEFA Super Cup 2018-19: Atletico academy eclipsing Madrid, La Masia

Barcelona and Real Madrid's academy players are rightly hailed, but how does Atletico Madrid's production line compare?

Atletico Madrid homegrown stars Koke, Thomas Partey, Lucas Hernandez and Saul Niguez   -  Getty Images

The triumphant return of Rodrigo is an indication of the growing strength of the Atletico Madrid academy, which is typically given little attention compared to those of rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Atletico are reported to have paid around €20million to bring Rodrigo back to the capital, the midfielder having developed into a Spain international during his time at Villarreal.

And Rodrigo's return comes at the ideal time as he slots in as the ideal replacement for Gabi, the club captain having departed for Al Sadd at the age of 35 following Atleti's Europa League triumph.

Rodrigo is far from the only Atletico academy product who could line up against Real Madrid in Wednesday's UEFA Super Cup in Tallinn.

Saul Niguez, regarded as one of the most talented young players in Europe, is a homegrown star and he could be partnered in midfield by Ghana international Thomas Partey.

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Between them the duo have already racked up over 250 LaLiga appearances despite their combined age of just 48, with Rodrigo similarly youthful at just 22.

But the jewel in Atletico's crown is Koke - the 26-year-old has made over 250 LaLiga appearances and last year he signed a massive new contract to commit his future to the club to 2024.

Lucas Hernandez, a World Cup winner with France at Russia 2018, is also poised to take on an increasingly influential role at the back for Diego Simeone's side.

Although Lucas played at left-back for Les Bleus throughout the World Cup, many believe his future lies in central defence and he has been touted as a long-term successor to Diego Godin.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez hyped his club's record in promoting youth as former Atletico goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois completed his move to the club earlier this month.

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But studying the squad shows Perez's comments do not stand up to scrutiny. Kiko Casilla has made more LaLiga appearances than any other Madrid academy product available to new coach Julen Lopetegui, but the signing of Courtois pushes the goalkeeper further down the pecking order.

Zinedine Zidane placed a lot of trust in Lucas Vazquez but, while his versatility is useful, he is not likely to be in Madrid's strongest side ahead of Isco, Gareth Bale or Marco Asensio.

Similarly, Nacho Fernandez has proven a very handy player to have in the squad, with the Spain international able to fill in across the back line, yet he typically only starts for Madrid when there is an injury or suspension.

·       Real Madrid is the only team apart from AC Milan to have won successive UEFA Super Cups. Its next win at the UEFA Super Cup 2018 could make them the only team to win 3 times in a row

·       Real Madrid has never been beaten by Atletico Madrid in the finals of a UEFA game

·       Real Madrid’s new signing Thibaut Courtois has played 111 games for Atletico Madrid when he was sent on a 3 season loan by Chelsea, his former team

·       Already holding a record for winning three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles, Real Madrid is looking for its third consecutive UEFA Super Cup victory this week

·       For the first time in 43 years of the UEFA Super Cup, two teams of the same city will face each other in the finals

·       This is the fourth time in the last five editions of the Super Cup that will see two Spanish teams battling it out for the trophy

·       The 2018 UEFA Super Cup final is to be held in Estonia, who for the first time are hosting a European club final in the history of the country

·       A win by either teams in this final would be a 15th guaranteed win for Spain as a nation in UEFA competition, the most by any country

·       This will be the first title Real Madrid will chase after the controversial arrival of Julen Lopetegui as the manager

Dani Carvajal is the only Madrid academy product who was an automatic starter for Zidane last term, but the club splashed out €40m on Alvaro Odriozola, a likely long-term replacement for the 26-year-old at right-back.

Zidane was trialled at Castilla before being handed the reins to the first team, however, when the Frenchman surprisingly opted to step down in May after a third consecutive Champions League title, the club opted for Lopetegui instead of another former player in Guti.

Barcelona's La Masia is rightly lauded as a blueprint for how a football academy should operate, but the stream of talent coming through to the first team has slowed to a trickle in recent years.

After Andres Iniesta departed for Japan, the club hailed the fact all four of the team's captains - Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto - are Barcelona through and through.

Yet the Catalan giants have increasingly turned to Brazil for new players.

Arthur and Malcom arrived ahead of the 2018-19 season, joining January signing Philippe Coutinho at the club, while Arturo Vidal joined from Bayern Munich to replace another Brazilian, Paulinho. With Messi and Luis Suarez in attack, there is a strong South American flavour, rather than Spanish.

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Indeed Roberto, 26, is the last Barcelona starlet to come through into the first team and he has had to carve out a niche at right-back, having previously been considered a midfielder.

At both Madrid and Barca, young players increasingly appear on the fringes, whereas at Atletico the squad is being built around homegrown stars.

Praise for Diego Simeone has typically centred on the coach's ability to build a team in his own image, smart transfer dealings and improving the players he has at his disposal.

But it is apparent Simeone, in charge of Atleti since 2011, is now looking to the future with a determination to build a team around players who have come through the club's academy.

Downing city rivals Madrid to claim a second UEFA Super Cup this week would go some way to showing Atletico's academy is now the strongest in Spain.

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