This season’s inaugural UEFA Youth League competition must promise something big.
The NextGen Series, widely known as Europe’s premier youth football tournament for the past two seasons, has been extinguished for this season due to ‘a lack of definite funding’.
This news surfaced after the announcement of UEFA’s under 19 tournament, which forced the NextGen Series to change from an under 19 to an under 20 tournament before the announcement that it would not go ahead this year.
UEFA’s new Youth League needs to emulate the success of its now-predecessor, which became increasingly popular across the continent as it grew older. If it can, it will present more youth players than ever before with opportunities to compete in European competition.
Exact dates and venues are not set out for the inaugural edition of this tournament yet except for a few early games, but the group stage draw mirrored that of the Champions League proper.
Manchester United have refused the opportunity to be involved in the NextGen Series for the past two seasons so this is a chance for their youngsters to prove themselves on a competitive European stage for the first time. Nicky Butt will take charge of the side competing, which will be made up of their under 18 and under 21 sides. Both of those sides have made an impressive start to their domestic seasons in the Barclays U21 and U18 Premier League respectively, despite losing their opening games against Liverpool and West Ham United. The side can take confidence off the back of their summer Milk Cup win though, of which the side won for the first time since 2009.
While their senior side continue to dominate Ukrainian football, Shakhtar Donetsk’s under 19 outfit are slightly behind. Last season’s 3rd place finish left them 11 points behind eventual winners Dynamo Kiev but this season promises more hope with an impressive 22 points from their opening eight fixtures including a 5-1 win against Illichivets, the side that pipped them to second place last year.
Bayer Leverkusen have made a fledging start to their Junioren Bundesliga U19 season as they sit top of their group table and now have a chance to prove what German academies are all about on the continent. Wolfsburg and Dortmund were the only German representatives in the NextGen Series over the past two seasons so the UEFA Youth League represents a chance for teams like Leverkusen to prove their worth. With three goals already this season, 17-year-old Marc Brasnic seems one to watch for the Werkself.
A fourth place finish in Group Two of the Divison de Honor Juvenil de Futbol behind the likes of Eibar and Osasuna doesn’t say much for Real Sociedad’s chances in this competition. Albeit an U18 tournament, they seem miles behind the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid that will grace this tournament this season.
Real Madrid are another one of Europe’s elite academies that have not taken part in the NextGen Series before. They should pose as tough of a test as their senior side as they have the potential to call on such stars as Jose Rodriguez. Last season Rodriguez made four senior appearances for Madrid at just 18-years-old, including becoming the youngest player to appear for Real Madrid in a Champions League match at the age of 17 years and 354 days in their 4-1 win against Ajax last season.
Juventus were beaten by eventual finalists Chelsea in last season’s NextGen Series and their positive start to their Campionato Nazionale Primavera campaign suggests that they will be one of the favourites to go far in this competition this year. They may have been knocked out their domestic league competition against Chievo last season, but they won the Coppa Italia Primavera against a strong Napoli outfit with 18-year-old Matteo Gerbaudo being one of the stars of their youth operation. He’ll be one to watch out for in this competition.
Galatasaray’s under 18 outfit settled for seventh place in Turkey’s Elit Akademi Ligi last season, which doesn’t make them too much of a threat going into this competition. Fenerbahce, who topped the domestic youth league last season, gave a far from convincing showing in the NextGen Series, exiting at the group stage without a win and not doing a lot for the profile of Turkish youth football. Turkey welcomed some of the world’s top prospects this summer as they hosted the FIFA U20 World Cup but were thrashed in the second round against eventual winners France. It was a great advert for Turkish football but shows that a lot of progression still needs to be made, meaning that Galatasaray should be welcome opponents for European outfits this season.
Copenhagen’s Under 19 squad finished third from bottom in Denmark’s U19 Ligaen last season, meaning they shouldn’t pose too much of a threat to the rest of Europe in this competition. They’ve managed to pick up things this season however, with an unbeaten start to their league campaign but midweek European competition could take its toll to make for another miserable season for the Danish capital club.
When Olympiakos and Anderlecht met in last season’s NextGen Series, the Greek side narrowly edged away with a 2-1 win. They were knocked out in the next round against eventual winners Aston Villa, but their impressive run to the quarter finals capped a great season for Olympiakos’ youth side as they also won the Greek Super League K20. In what could be one of the most entertaining groups, Olympiakos could be a real force.
Despite exiting the NextGen Series against the Greek giants, Anderlecht’s academy is steeped in history and this season’s crop could live up to the reputation of Anderlecht’s academy with 16-year-old Youri Tielemans, who has made a massive impression on the first-team already this season, eligible to participate in the competition.
Paris St Germain have always had one of the best academies in France and that tradition continued last season as their under 19 squad reached the semi-final of the Championnat National U19 league. After beating the likes of Juventus and Manchester City in the group stage of the NextGen Series, they were knocked out by Tottenham Hotspur in a second round penalty shootout. One to watch for the French giants is English goalkeeper Daniel Arnoll. The Solihull-born stopper has established himself as number 1 in PSG’s academy and already declared that if he had to make the choice, he’d represent England internationally rather than our channel neighbours.
Benfica are the reigning Portuguese under 19 champions and now have the opportunity to show what they can do on the European stage. They currently sit top of their south division in this season’s Portuguese Juniores U19 and their form suggests they are in no mood to stop their progress at youth level. This could be the platform to shove the likes Raphael Gozzo and Joao Nunes into the spotlight, both of which have been key players for Lisbon-based club at youth level.
Manchester City didn’t make it past the group stage of last year’s NextGen Series but have always hailed their European experiences as the time they learn the most about their next generation of players. One man not shy of experience in Europe is Patrick Vieira, who will be leading Manchester City’s under 19 contingent into the competition and will be relying on 17-year-old Marcos Lopes, who has been a revelation since arriving at the Etihad in 2011. Formerly of Benfica, Lopes has scored seven times in six appearances for Portugal’s U19 side and made his senior debut for the Citizens in last season’s FA Cup clash against Watford, coming off the bench to score in the final minute to secure a 3-0 win.
Last season’s Junioren Bundesliga U19 semi-finalists Bayern Munich make their bow in European youth competition after not participating in the NextGen Series last year. German-American teenager Julian Green could be the man to emulate the success of the senior side in last season’s Champions League for the youth division as he has turned heads with his early season performances. He netted two hat-tricks in two games in at the start of pre-season for Bayern’s first team under the watchful eye of Pep Guardiola.
Viktoria Plzen’s performance in the Czech Liga U19 last year was distinctly average as they finished a mediocre 11th out of 18 teams. Plzen’s academy hasn’t seemed to grasp the same success as their senior side quite yet, which means they could well be the whipping boys of this group.
CSKA Moscow shocked a lot of people last season when they finished top of their group in the NextGen Series, beating Chelsea and the prestigious Ajax academy to top spot in Group 3. In the second round they thrashed PSV Eindhoven before being knocked out to Arsenal in the quarter finals. Although much of that squad will be too old to be eligible for the UEFA Youth League, it puts Russian football in good stead and another convincing performance from Moscow could put a real impression on the continent.
A youthful Schalke side won their group in the Junioren Bundesliga U19 last season and still have the main core of their team in order to build on it for this season’s European competition. Max Meyer and Tammo Harder scored 37 times between them as Schalke reached the semi-finals of the competition only to lose to eventual winners Wolfsburg on aggregate. With such talents as Julian Draxler as recent graduates from the Schalke academy, it is no wonder they’re succeeding at this level and the future only looks bright for the Gelsenkirchen club.
Chelsea finished runners-up in last season’s NextGen Series so will fancy themselves as one of the favourites to take this competition. Key players from that campaign such as tournament topscorer Islam Feruz, player of the tournament Lewis Baker and quick winger Alex Kiwomya are still eligible to appear in this tournament. Both their under 18 and under 21 sides have made a positive start to this season and are no strangers to success with a FA Youth Cup runners-up medal adding to that NextGen Series achievement last season.
FC Basel declined the invitation to take part in last season’s NextGen Series following their participation in the inaugural 2011/12 tournament. After a positive start in 2011 with three points against PSV Eindhoven and drawing with Tottenham Hotspur their form dipped, only taking a point from their remaining fixtures. With a focus on their domestic league last season, their under 18 side proved fruitful and won the Swiss league. Perhaps this season balancing European competition and domestic commitments will be easier than it was two years ago for the St Jakobs Park outfit.
There are strong fears that Steaua Bucharest’s reputation could be tarnished in this competition as their lack of funding in their youth department comes to light. Owner Gigi Becali has preferred to buy every promising Romanian youngster coming through the ranks rather than investing money and time in their own youth academy to feed the first team. Becali’s financial strength has made Steaua the leading light of Romanian football but beneath the surface they could flop in this tournament on the continent.
Napoli didn’t have the chance to prove themselves on the continent in the NextGen Series but should be a real force in this competition. They came runners-up in last season’s Coppa Italia Primavera and their league season was only plagued by some poor end-of-season form that saw them finish fourth behind Lazio, Catania and Palermo. This season couldn’t have started worse for Napoli though, losing their opening day fixture 5-1 against Lazio.
Arsenal were part of the English trio that along with Sporting, made up last season’s NextGen Series semi-finalists. Despite losing 3-1 to Sporting Lisbon in the 3rd place play-off, there were many positives to take from Terry Burton’s side’s performances such as the individual displays of Thomas Eisfeld and Nico Yennaris. Although the aforementioned aren’t eligible for this season’s tournament, Arsenal can still select the likes of Serge Gnabry, Hector Bellerin, Jon Toral and Chuba Akpom, who will all be relishing their chance on the European stage.
With only one win to their name, last season’s NextGen Series could have gone a lot better for Borussia Dortmund. Despite being in a tough group alongside Liverpool and Inter Milan, finishing bottom of their group was quite unexpected and they will be hopeful that this season is more productive on the continent. With the ever-increasing success of German academies, they have a reputation to maintain – and recover – from last year’s poor showing. With Mario Gotze’s emergence from the Dortmund academy as recent as 2009 and the success of the senior side in this competition last year, the future does look good for Dortmund who should be competitive in the UEFA Youth League this year.
Marseille narrowly missed out on progression to the second round of last season’s NextGen Series after failing to be one of the best third-place teams in the competition from the group stage. This disappointment was eclipsed by further misery later in the year when their under 19 side was relegated from the French Championnat National U19, finishing third from bottom. This European tournament is the chance for Marseille to pick themselves up and restore pride that was lost upon relegation at the end of last season.
Group G is the only set of teams with no participants from last season’s NextGen Series, so should make for fresh, interesting viewing this season. Porto have made an almost-perfect start to their Portuguese Juniores U19 league season with six wins and one draw to their name, but while winning their northern group will be a formality, winning the overall championship, of which they were beaten to by one point by Benfica last season, will be the ultimate goal. A good showing in this competition should also be high on their agenda as Rui Correia’s side attempt to raise the ever-increasing profile of Portuguese football once again.
This could be the year that Russia’s young talent put their country on the map in terms of youth progression. The Russian U17 side won the 2013 European U17 Championship in Slovakia this summer with two Zenit players among their squad. 17-year-old defender Dzhamaldin Khodzhaniyazov played all five games on Russia’s way to the trophy while striker Aleksei Gasalin played in four games and netted once along the way. Those two should send Zenit firmly on their way to making an impression on this tournament.
Austria Vienna’s U18 side won their opening league game of the season 7-1 in the Austrian Jugendliga, setting the mark for what they want to achieve this year. After a second-place finish behind an almost-perfect St Polten in the league last year, they’ll be looking to go one better while balancing European competition.
Atletico Madrid’s under 18 side finished narrowly behind rivals Real in their Division de Honor Juvenil de Futbol group last year before losing to Villarreal in the Copa des Campeones. Borja Martinez was a key part of that campaign and remains eligible for this competition. Atletico’s academy has seen the likes of Oliver Torres and Koke graduate to the first team in recent season proving that there is quality in their youth set up and new faces such as Martinez as well as Samuel Villa and ‘Chele’ should become the next products of Los Rojiblancos academy if they can prove their worth in this competition this year.
Ajax are possibly one of the most successful academies in this competition but will have very fierce competition in the form of Barcelona and AC Milan. A 3-0 win against PSV Eindhoven on the opening day of the Eredivisie U19 last week will give them the upmost confidence going into their first matchday. They finished runners-up in the inaugural edition of the NextGen Series in 2011/12 with the likes of Viktor Fischer, Davy Klaassen and Lesley de Sa in their squad but with similar faces in the side, they lost to Aston Villa in the second round of last season’s competition. This year they have players such as Riechedly Bazoer, Sam Hendriks and Kenny Tete looking to make an impression.
In recent years, Barcelona’s ‘La Masia’ academy has been one of the most prolific in Europe. Alumni of late includes Gerard Pique, Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, Francesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. The latest crop of youngsters includes Jean Marie Dongou, Toni Sanabria, Edgar Le and Alex Grimaldo. Dongou was topscorer in the NextGen Series in 2011/12 and put in some convincing performances last season as Barcelona topped their group before being knocked out by Chelsea in the second round. Grimaldo made his Barcelona ‘B’ debut at just 15-years-old and has made 17 appearances for the Segunda side since despite being only 17. Sanabria made his senior international debut at just 17. After two seasons of maturing most of their side in the NextGen Series, this is a competition where Barcelona can really make an impression.
AC Milan haven’t appeared in the NextGen Series these past two seasons so this is our first chance to get a glimpse of the Rossoneri on the European stage. Last season, Milan’s youth side were pipped to the top of their domestic division by Atalanta before falling to the same side in the Championship semi-final. Milan may be short of European experience at youth level but they go into this competition with new coach Flippo Inzaghi by their side, installing some of his experience from 114 European appearances into this youthful side.
On paper, Celtic will be shivering with fear looking at this group but in reality they have put in some inspired performances across two seasons competing in the NextGen Series. Last season they managed an entertaining 2-2 draw with Aston Villa and the season before doing the double over Manchester City on their way to a third-place group finish. Last domestic season, they ran away with the Scottish U20 Premier League, albeit without the competition of Rangers. This season, with the presence of their Glasgow rivals, they have already made a promising start but will need to learn to balance European and domestic commitments.