This season’s NextGen Series has thrown up an all-English final as Chelsea and Aston Villa beat Arsenal and Sporting Lisbon respectively in their last four fixtures this Easter bank holiday weekend.
With a selection of Europe’s most elite young sides having fiercely contested for those two enviable final places since mid-August, it shows the Premier League has much to look forward to.
But as the Premier League flourishes in entertainment value, can England muster up an international side to match?
Out of the three English teams that flew to Lake Como to contest the semi-finals, only eleven English players were named across their starting XIs.
In contrast, Sporting Lisbon alone, who joined them in Italy had nine Portuguese youngsters starting.
Last season’s finalists Ajax started their final with an impressive 9 Dutchmen while victors Inter named an acceptable six Italians in their starting line-up.
The statistics seem worrying, but one consolation for anxious England fans that are already deciding for or against the 2022 trip to Qatar is that the English contingent really notched up the heat on a warm evening in northern Italy.
Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was inspirational in their extra-time battle with Sporting Lisbon.
He had a solid 90 minutes which saw Villa take the lead through Graham Burke, only to be thwarted by Luri Medeiros’ equalizer.
Once regular time finished, the Birmingham-born attacking midfielder came alive and converted Callum Robinson’s cross to give them first blood in the additional period.
The 17-year-old then turned provider just before the interval to set up Samir Carruthers after taking advantage of a defensive error from the Portuguese outfit and ultimately send Villa through to the final.
The fiery form of Arsenal’s Chuba Akpom and Chelsea’s Lewis Baker made way for one of the most engaging duels of the competition so far in the other semi final.
London-born Akpom gave the young Gunners an early lead when he made an intelligent run to find space between two defenders and converted Hector Bellerin’s low cross after 16 minutes.
After Islam Feruz equalized for Chelsea, it was Baker that sent them ahead with a speculative 35-yard effort. The 17-year-old midfielder managed to squeeze the ball under the diving Dejan Iliev after he was given acres of space in the middle of the field.
Jeremie Boga increased Chelsea’s lead and seemed to put the game beyond Arsenal when he finished from close range. He was assisted by England under 17 international Alex Kiwomya, who impressively weaved his way into the Arsenal penalty box and squared the ball between a barrage of defending bodies.
But the game was not over and Akpom laid the foundations to what would be a stunning revival from Terry Burton’s men. Substitute Zak Ansah crossed for the 17-year-old who poached his effort past Mitchell Beeney and Serge Gnabry grabbed the equaliser with just minutes remaining to send the tie to extra-time.
However, it was not meant to be a dream comeback for the Gunners as Baker turned out to be the hero for Chelsea when he struck from 6 yards out. John Swift worked his way into the right side of the box and squared to the Chelsea captain who would make no mistake from that range.
Monday’s final between Villa and Chelsea will be a showcase for the future of the Premier League but perhaps not the future of England, despite the bright performances of our future lions.
There was never any expectation that 33 English players would be fielded across the two semi-finals but to have just 11 across three sides – especially at under 19 level – sums up why there has been years of worry surrounding the future of the national football team and why there will continue to be so.