NextGen Series 2012/13 Preview
After a successful first season, the NextGen Series is back! The under-19 equivalent of the Champions League is already well under way and boasts an augmented roster after the competition was expanded from 16 to 24 teams this year with six groups instead of four. English giants Arsenal and Chelsea have signed up along with likes of the prestigious academies of Bilbao, Dortmund, CSKA, Olympiakos, Anderlecht and Juventus.
Last year Inter Milan emerged victorious, beating Ajax on penalties after a 1-1 draw in the final, and helped land Andrea Stramaccioni the top job at Inter. The tournament provided a platform for a number of youngsters, some of whom have gone on to make a handful of first team appearances, while others are back to light up the tournament again this year.
Of those returning stars, Ajax’s Viktor Fischer should certainly be one of the players to watch. Last year the Dane finished the tournament as joint top scorer, finding the net seven times, including a semi-final hat-trick against Liverpool, as he guided his side to the final. On Wednesday he continued his sensational NextGen record by hitting three past Norwegian outfit Molde. Europe’s top clubs will be keeping a beady eye on how the promising youngster develops.
As you’d expect, Barcelona’s production line has not eased up and their 17-year-old Cameroonian striker Jean-Marie Dongou – who shared the golden boot with Fischer last time around – netted on his debut for the Barca B team. He has been earmarked as one of the hottest prospects to come out of La Masia. Dongou, like promising left back Alejandro Grimaldo, has been named in Barcelona’s NextGen squad list but has yet to appear in either of Los Cules first two games. It’s possible that he and Grimaldo will be spared the group stages and only called upon in the latter stages of the competition.
One player who will definitely have a starring role is defensive midfielder Sergi Samper. Playing in a similar role to Sergio Busquets, he showed his class with tidy passing and great positional play against Anderlecht and had pundits purring as he pulled the strings in a 2-0 win over Spurs. Scorer of both goals that night was Sandro and also looks a very exciting prospect, while Lionel Enguene, Xavier Quintilla and Adama Traore clearly have plenty of unrefined potential too.
Reigning champions Inter Milan will be hoping for more success this year but will be without the likes of Samuele Longo, Lorenzo Crisetig and potentially last year’s player of the tournament Danielle Bessa, who is out with a cruciate ligament injury. The most exciting player in their ranks will be Lorenzo Tassi – already optimisitically dubbed the new Roberto Baggio – who initially broke onto the scene when he made his debut for Brescia at the tender age of 15. Others to watch out for are Patrick Olsen, who has featured for Denmark at every youth level, and Senegalese defender Ibrahima Mbaye.
There remains a strong British presence in the tournament with four clubs returning and two others joining the party. Of last year’s alumni, the player to have made the biggest splash is, without a doubt, Raheem Sterling. His wizardry and invention was a highlight of Liverpool’s run to the semi-final and a cracking start to the season has seen him earn an England call up. Although still eligible, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll feature now and the mantle will be passed on to others.
One player who could potentially fill his shoes is new signing Samed Yesil. The German youth international has an incredible scoring record with 20 goals in 21 appearances for the under-17s and was in fine form at last year’s under-17 World Cup. He seems to have caught the eye of Brendan Rodgers too as he made the bench last night as Liverpool beat Young Boys of Bern in a thrilling Europa League tie. Others who could also star for Liverpool are Joao Carlos Teixeira (who ‘Pool signed off Sporting Lisbon after good performances in last year’s NextGen), Jordan Ibe and US youth international Marc Pelosi.
Another breakthrough performance was Gary Gardner for Aston Villa as they reached quarter finals. The midfielder was superb for the young lions and has gone on to make 17 first team appearances but has cruelly been ruled out for the season with a cruciate ligament injury. Villa have not started well with losses to Sporting and PSV in a tricky group 4 but the likes of Jack Grealish, Calum Robinson and Michael Drennan could help kick start their campaign.
Having withdrawn from last year’s competition following the selection of two ineligible players in their quarter final win against Liverpool last year Tottenham will look to set the record straight this time out. Returning for Spurs are key duo Souleymane Coulibaly and Alex Pritchard, both of whom have the capability of producing something special for the North Londoners. Whilst they suffered a 2-0 reverse at home to Barcelona, coming from behind to record a comprehensive 3-2 victory against Wolfsburg shows they have the mettle to go on a good run again this year. It will also be interesting to watch the development of classy defenders Dominic Ball and Milos Veljkovic as the tournament progresses. Versatile midfielder Nabil Bentaleb has drawn favourable comparisons with new acquisition and first-teamer Mousa Dembélé, whilst powerful forward Shaquile Coulthirst will look to continue his under-18 goalscoring form playing through the middle or cutting in from the left.
Man City were unspectacular last year but Spanish pair Denis Suarez and Jose Angel Pozo are ones to watch, while we may see new signing Jules Ntcham – the French under-16 captain recently bought from Le Havre – making an appearance.
New boys Chelsea and Arsenal both looked well equipped to make an impression in their maiden NextGen participations. Although Nathanial Chalobah won’t feature due to his loan move to Watford, Chelsea’s squad still contains the likes of Brazilian forward Lucas Piazon, Scottish youth star Islam Feruz, Patrick Bamford – signed for £1.5million from Nottingham Forest – as well as Denmark’s Andreas Christensen and Holland’s Nathan Ake.
The Gunners also have a squad packed full of talent. English youngster Josh Rees is tipped to follow in the footsteps of Jack Wilshere and captain Nico Yennaris has a handful of first team appearances under his belt. Chuba Akpom scored a brace in the 3-0 win over Marseille and the likes of Dutch midfielder Kyle Ebecilio, Spanish pair Jon Toral and Hector Bellerin, German wonderkid Serge Gnabry and promising swede Kristoffer Olsson are all interesting prospects.
Dennis Praet is the star of Anderlecht’s side and the latest in the conveyor belt of young Belgian talent. Powerful forward Nathan Kabasele is another to monitor, having scored against Barcelona, and Davy Roef looks to be a safe pair of hands in goal.
Perhaps the most highly rated keeper in the tournament, though, is Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa Arrigabalaza. The 17-year-old shot stopper was part of the Spain side that won the under 19 tournament this summer, as was defender Jonas Ramalho, who is also the first mixed race player to play for the Bilbao senior side. The Basque side have a phenomenal youth record and will push Arsenal hard in Group 6.
One player I’m particularly looking forward to see is PSG’s gifted playmaker Abdullah Yaisien. He was instrumental for the impressive French under-17 side. PSG’s team also includes fellow French youth international defender Jordan Ikoko and the buoyant barnet of Adrien Rabiot.
Koray Gunter of Dortmund impressed in the heart of defence for Germany’s under-17’s last summer and could follow in the footsteps of Mats Hummels, while PSV’s Zakaria Bakkali was voted best player at the Nike Cup and is reportedly a Manchester City target. CSKA Moscow could well be the dark horses of the tournament after notching up three wins already while Sporting Lisbon’s fine traditional of producing young talent is likely to continue.
There will definitely be some unknown players to emerge and it will be fascinating to see how the aforementioned players live up to their budding reputations. What is certain is that the NextGen Series is firmly establishing its place in the footballing calendar and is a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of tomorrow’s stars today.
By Tom Robinson and Michael Hughes