Samper the latest gem from Barca production line

BARCELONA (Reuters) - One thing that has stood out during the early stages of Luis Enrique's stint as Barcelona coach is the faith he is placing in recent graduates from the club's famed "La Masia" academy.

At least in the opening weeks of the season, Luis Enrique is relying on home-grown talent more than his predecessor Gerardo Martino did and the latest to be given their debut in the first team was 19-year-old midfielder Sergi Samper.

Samper, who has been with the club since the age of six, played the whole of Wednesday's 1-0 Champions League Group F victory at home to APOEL, taking the central holding role typically occupied by the rested Sergio Busquets.

Samper turned in an assured performance against the Cypriot champions, completing 98 of 107 attempted passes and winning the ball back nine times.

"I felt comfortable," he told Barca's TV channel.

"Playing with these players everything is easier," he added.

"I am very pleased to be here and grateful for the confidence shown in me. It is priceless."

Others fresh out of the academy who have debuted for the first team this season include 19-year-old forwards Munir el Haddadi, who also made his Spain debut in this month's Euro 2016 qualifier against Macedonia, and Sandro Ramirez.

They both featured against APOEL and along with Samper are following in a long line of home-grown talent including the likes of Xavi, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.

A former Barca and Spain midfielder, Gijon-born Luis Enrique started out with local club Sporting and after ending his playing career was appointed coach of Barca's B team in 2008, succeeding Pep Guardiola.

He later achieved mixed results in charge of AS Roma and Celta Vigo before returning to take over from Martino at the end of last season.

Luis Enrique is clearly a staunch supporter of Barca's youth policies as he tries to strike the right balance between academy graduates and players brought in from outside the club such as Neymar, Luis Suarez and Ivan Rakitic.

"I know Samper perfectly," Luis Enrique told a news conference after the Group F opener against APOEL.

"He has personality, he only made one mistake," added the 44-year-old.

"He carried the team well and he is a great discovery for the club who will help us on this journey."

Barca's decorated playmaker Xavi, who equalled the record for Champions League appearances of 142 on Wednesday, was also full of praise for the latest crop of academy players.

"They have a lot of talent and they have the good fortune to have a coach who has faith in them," he told reporters.

Barca's next outing is a La Liga game at Levante on Sunday when they will be chasing a fourth win in four matches this term.

(Writing by Iain Rogers in Madrid, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

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