Youth academies bearing fruit
The 2008/09 season began with the usual supply of transfer headlines, with the likes of Ronaldinho, Dimitar Berbatov and Robinho making big-money moves to some of the globe's wealthiest clubs. Yet, as the opening months of the new term have revealed, sound investment in young talent closer to home can prove just as rewarding a policy as drafting in established stars.
By banking on their youth academies, clubs can build a solid foundation for the future and, in time, harvest success out on the pitch. This unsung work behind the scenes is now paying off for several teams on both sides of the Atlantic, who are feeling the benefit of investing in their youngest assets.
La Masia central to Barça success
Having worked his way up through the ranks at Barcelona to form part of Johan Cruyff's fabled 'Dream Team' of the early 1990s, current Barça coach Josep Guardiola is a perfect example of how carefully nurtured local talent can bed in seamlessly with big-name imports. The pupil has now turned master, of course, and Guardiola has followed that tried-and-tested formula to create a thrilling team that is turning heads across the continent.
The Catalans stand top of La Liga, having scored more league goals than any other side in Europe this season, and are already through to the knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League. Such success is due in no small part to a nucleus of graduates of La Masia, the club's renowned academy.
Captain Carles Puyol, midfielders Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and goalkeeper Victor Valdes are all established members of the first team. And this season they have been joined by lifelong season-ticket holder Gerard Pique, who has returned to the club at which he learnt his trade, and burgeoning talents Sergi Busquets and Bojan.
Two other former prodigies making their mark with the Culés are Lionel Messi, who arrived from Argentina as a 13-year-old and is now the heartbeat of the side, and free-scoring striker Samuel Eto'o, who nurtured his skills at the youth academy of eternal rivals Real Madrid.
If you're old enough, you're good enough
The Spanish pacesetters are not the only club with an unshakeable belief in their teenagers. Manchester United youth products Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Darren Fletcher all played their part in the Red Devils claiming a Premier League and UEFA Champions League double last season.
Another English club with a reputation for unearthing promising youngsters from the local area are Middlesbrough, whose academy is one of the most respected in the country. German outfits Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen and Hertha Berlin are all noted for their youth programmes, while Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm repaid Bayern Munich for years of patient schooling by helping them to the 2007/08 league and cup double.
Over in Argentina, Lanus and Velez Sarsfield have remained faithful to their tradition of bringing youngsters through and now regularly compete for domestic silverware. And in their efforts to remain one of the world's top clubs, Boca Juniors are engaged in a constant process of renewal, one that has involved goalkeeper Javier Garcia, defenders Facundo Roncaglia and Juan Forlin, midfielder Osvaldo Gaitan, and strikers Ricardo Noir and Lucas Viatri breaking into their first team in recent times.
The French formula
The academies of France have long been honing the skills of young players of African origin, and in the last few years sides such as Toulouse and Lille have exposed several of their graduates to top-flight football - and with excellent results. Few youth products have achieved quite as much success as Lyon's Karim Benzema, however. The 20-year-old, a striker of Algerian descent, is the top scorer in Ligue 1 this term and a key component of a revamped France side.
Just across the English Channel, Arsenal are reaping the rewards of Arsene Wenger's far-sightedness in youth development. A firm believer in blooding fledgling talent, the Frenchman has picked up some star recruits from other academies to assemble one of the youngest teams in the Premier League. Despite their tender years, Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabregas, Mexico's Carlos Vela, Alexandre Song of Cameroon, and the English duo of Jack Wilshere and Jay Simpson have already served notice of their prodigious gifts.
As well as being the future of the world game, these young stars are proof that clubs can often find the resources they need for success right on their doorstep.