UEFA Youth League preview: Chelsea, Man City, Barcelona and Porto go for glory
This season’s UEFA Youth League competition draws to a climax this weekend as Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona and Porto battle it out in Switzerland to be crowned Europe’s best.
Friday sees the two semi-finals take place at the Stade Colovray, adjacent to UEFA’s headquarters in the town of Nyon, as Chelsea play Porto and Man City take on Barcelona.
The final will be played at the same venue on Monday evening as we discover which of the four will succeed Red Bull Salzburg as the Youth League champions.
In preparation for the finals weekend, here’s everything you need to know.
WHAT IS THE UEFA YOUTH LEAGUE?
For the uninitiated, the UEFA Youth League is a continental competition for under-19 teams run by European football’s governing body.
In the group stage, the format mirrors with UEFA Champions League with identical draws, before breaking off into a single-legged knockout format.
There is also a parallel knockout competition called the Domestic Champions Path which features the winners of youth leagues from all over Europe not already in the main draw.
The teams that progress though the Domestic Champions Path then have a play-off against the teams that finish second in the group stage.
Win that and they’re through into the quarter-finals, with a shot at going all the way to the final.
The semi-finals and the final are then staged over a long weekend at the same stadium, close to UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
There, they will fight it out for the Lennart Johansson Trophy, a sleek piece of silverware named after UEFA’s honorary president from Sweden.
The competition offers aspiring teenage players the opportunity to experience continental competition and, according to UEFA, 340 players from the UEFA Youth League have gone on to play in either the Champions League or Europa League.
WHERE IS THE FINALS WEEKEND HELD?
The Centre sportif de Colovray, located opposite UEFA’s HQ in the Swiss town of Nyon, has to rank as one of the most picturesque in European football.
From the main stand, you have a splendid view of Lake Geneva and the snow-capped peaks of the Alps beyond. Nyon is located just a 15-minute train journey away from Geneva.
The stadium holds 7,200 spectators and is the home of Swiss third division side Stade Nyonnais.
WHO HAS WON THE COMPETITION PREVIOUSLY?
This is only the fifth edition of the tournament, which was started in the 2013-14 season, so there isn’t a very lengthy roll of honour.
Barcelona were the inaugural champions, defeating Benfica 3-0 in the 2014 final. Chelsea won the next two, defeating Shakhtar Donetsk 3-2 in 2015 and Paris Saint-Germain 2-1 in 2016.
Last season, Salzburg beat Benfica 2-1 to become the third different team to lift the trophy.
GUIDE TO THE TEAMS
Best Youth League performance: Winners 2015 and 2016
All-time leading scorer: Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke, 12 goals
All-time leading appearance maker: Ola Aina, 20 matches
Route to the final: Group stage – Qarabag (H) 5-0; Atletico Madrid (A) 3-1; Roma (H) 0-2; Roma (A) 1-2; Qarabag (A) 3-1; Atletico Madrid (H) 4-2; Last-16 – Feyenoord (H) 5-2; Quarter-final – Real Madrid (A) 4-2
Coach: Joe Edwards – former Chelsea schoolboy player who managed the under-18 side for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons and won the FA Youth Cup in both by defeating Manchester City in the final. Edwards has been in charge of the development squad since last summer but also takes the under-19s in the Youth League.
Number of homegrown players in squad: 16 English players
Fact: Trevoh Chalobah, Dujon Sterling, Joseph Colley and Jacob Maddox are survivors from the squad that won the 2016 Youth League.
Three players to watch
Callum Hudson-Odoi (17, striker, English) – Hotshot striker enjoying an excellent season. He has scored six times for the under-23s in the Premier League 2 and four in three games for the under-18s en route to yet another FA Youth Cup final. Most significantly, he has made two Premier League and two FA Cup appearances for Antonio Conte’s first team. Won the Under-17 World Cup with England last year.
Trevoh Chalobah (18, centre-back, English)– Younger brother of Nathaniel and in Chelsea’s academy since the age of nine. Was a regular in the side that retained Chelsea’s Youth League title in 2016, also winning the Youth Cup in that same season. Part of the side that won the Youth Cup once again last season, scoring goals in the semi-final and the final. Won the Under-19 European Championship with England last year.
Juan Castillo (18, left midfield, Dutch) – Signed from the Ajax academy in the summer of 2016, Castillo is a versatile player who can operate as a winger, wing-back or central midfielder. Completed a Youth Cup and Under-18 Premier League double in his first season with the Blues and now has an appetite for more silverware. A quick and tricky player.
Best Youth League performance: Quarter-finalists in 2014 and 2015
All-time leading scorer: Thierry Ambrose, 8 goals
All-time leading appearance maker: Tosin Adarabioyo and Thierry Ambrose, 19 matches
Route to the final: Group stage – Feyenoord (A) 0-2; Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 3-1; Napoli (H) 3-1; Napoli (A) 5-3; Feyenoord (H) 0-0; Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 1-2; Last-16 – Inter Milan (H) 1-1, won 3-2 on penalties; Quarter-finals – Liverpool (H) 1-1, won 3-2 on penalties
Coach: Simon Davies – former Manchester United Class of ’92 member who played alongside the likes of David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt. Unlike them, Davies made just 11 league appearances for United. He served as assistant to Patrick Vieira in City’s Elite Development Squad for two years before taking over as manager.
Number of homegrown players in squad: 14 English players
Fact: Both of midfielder Tommy Doyle’s grandfathers – Mike Doyle and Glyn Pardoe – played for City in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Colin Rosler is the son of former player Uwe Rosler.
Three players to watch
Joel Latibeaudiere (18, centre-back, English) – the man who captained England to that World Cup triumph out in India last October. Latibeaudiere hasn’t yet enjoyed the first-team opportunities Foden has, but has impressed for City’s under-23 side and also in the Youth League, where he has played five times this season. Commanding in defence and a natural-born leader, Latibeaudiere will take some beating.
Tom Dele-Bashiru (18, midfielder, English) – The midfield battle will certainly be crucial in City’s semi-final with Barcelona and, with star man Phil Foden ineligible having played three times in the Champions League, Dele-Bashiru will be important. The imposing player made his first team debut in City’s EFL Cup tie against Leicester City back in December.
Daniel Grimshaw (20, goalkeeper, English) – If City’s semi-final against Barcelona or the final goes all the way to penalties (there is no extra time in the Youth League) then opponents should beware penalty specialist Grimshaw. He made no fewer than six saves in the shoot-out wins over Inter Milan and Liverpool in the last-16 and quarter-finals respectively. Grimshaw has been training with Guardiola’s first-team squad this season.
Best Youth League performance: Winners in 2014
All-time leading scorer: Munir El Haddadi, 14 goals
All-time leading appearance maker: Carles Perez, 22 appearances
Route to the final: Group stage – Juventus (H) 1-0; Sporting Lisbon (A) 1-0; Olympiacos (H) 5-0; Olympiacos (A) 3-0; Juventus (A) 1-0; Sporting Lisbon (H) 1-1; Last-16 – Paris Saint-Germain (A) 1-0; Quarter-finals – Atletico Madrid (H) 2-0
Coach: Francisco Pimienta – Coach of Barcelona’s Juvenil A team and the longest-serving coach in the Barcelona set-up. Involved in the famous La Masia academy since 2001, Pimienta helped bring through the likes of Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique.
Number of homegrown players in squad: 22 Spanish players
Fact: Barcelona are certainly a difficult team to break down – they have conceded just the one goal in their Youth League campaign, against Sporting Lisbon in the group stage.
Three players to watch
Carles Perez (20, right wing, Spanish) – The man who has supplied much of Barcelona’s Youth League firepower, with five goals in seven matches during their run to the semi-finals. Perez plays regularly for the Barcelona B team in the Spanish second division.
Abel Ruiz (18, striker, Spanish) – Another player from the B team who also plays in the Youth League, albeit without a goal to his credit so far this season. But Ruiz has been successful at international level, scoring twice for Spain in their Under-17 European Championship campaign in 2016 and doing likewise during their run to the Under-17 World Cup final last year.
Ignacio Pena (19, goalkeeper, Spanish) – Pena hasn’t conceded a single goal in his seven Youth League appearances this season and truly has been their last line of defence. He is a Spain under-19 international.
Best Youth League performance: Quarter-finalists in 2015 and 2017
All-time leading scorer: Rui Pedro, nine goals
All-time leading appearance maker: Joao Cardosa, 22 appearances
Route to the final: Group stage – Besiktas (H) 5-1; Monaco (A) 2-3; Leipzig (A) 2-0; Leipzig (H) 3-2; Besiktas (A) 1-0; Monaco (H) 2-1; Last-16 – Salzburg (H) 3-1; Quarter-finals – Tottenham Hotspur (A) 2-0
Coach: Joao Brandao – 35-year-old former fitness coach is in his second season in charge of Portoi’s under-19 side. Last season they lost to Barcelona in the quarter-finals, so have already surpassed that this time around.
Number of homegrown players in squad: 18 Portuguese players
Fact: Forward Afonso Sousa’s grandfather Antonio Sousa was in Porto’s 1987 European Cup winning side and his dad also played for the club.
Three players to watch
Diogo Dalot (19, right-back, Portuguese) – Dalot has been playing predominantly for Porto’s Youth League and B sides this season but he did also make his Champions League debut in the second leg of their last-16 tie with Liverpool. He helped them to a goalless draw though they already trailed 5-0 from the first match. He has also played six league games this term, often as a left-back.
Madi Queta (19, right wing, Portuguese) – Scorer of three goals in Porto’s Youth League run, Queta is their leading scorer in the competition. A member of their B team, he was born in Guinea-Bissau but has represented Portugal at six different age groups from under-15s to under-20s.
Paulo Estrela (19, central midfield, Portugal) – An experienced Youth League campaigner with 16 appearances and two goals under his belt over the last couple of years. The captain of the side for their knockout wins over Salzburg and Tottenham.