The next big things and the players to look for
If this was the Champions League, there would be drama, tension, flare and sparkle – and with these sets of ties, hungry TV companies and broadcasters would be going mad with spoilt choice.
If this was the NextGen Series, there would be potential, excitement, exhilaration and explosions of talent that only the youngest and hottest European teenagers can produce… and luckily that’s just what the second round draw of the tournament has got in store.
FourFourTwo’s Talentspotter has previewed each tie in one of the most intriguing tournaments on the planet – and there’s plenty to look forward to. Remember, each game is one-leg only: a sudden-death shoot-out between the best young talent in Europe.
Ajax v Aston Villa (Tue 19 Feb, 7pm: De Toekomst)Aston Villa have a mighty task on their hands if they are to defeat last year’s runners-up Ajax.
Many of the Dutch squad that reached last season's final remain in this year’s NextGen squad, including one of Europe’s hottest properties, Viktor Fischer. Last season’s joint top scorer in the tournament, Fischer is the latest in line on the conveyor belt of Amsterdam talent and follows high-profile names such as Christian Eriksen into the first-team this season. Seven goals in 16 appearances and still only 18 tender years to his name isn’t a bad record for the striker that has now broke into Denmark’s senior international side as well.
Aston Villa meanwhile are also reaping the benefits of goalscoring brilliance in this seasons’ tournament. Michael Drennan (pictured) is the tournament's current joint top scorer, along with Liverpool's Conor Coady; according to Villa academy manager Bryan Jones, he "scores for fun". The Irishman, soon to turn 19, has been a regular in Villa's title-winning reserve side as well as making his mark internationally: he has played for the Republic of Ireland at U16, U17 and U19 level.
Paris St Germain v Tottenham Hotspur (Wed 20 Feb, 5pm, St Germain en Laye)PSG advanced in mightily impressive form to the second round stage, only dropping points against Juventus’ Primavera.
France’s rich heritage of players hailing from the Maghreb could be defined in coming years by Abdallah Yaisien, who will be a crucial factor if PSG are to pass their way through the knockout rounds. Born in the Parisian suburbs to an Algerian mother and Egyptian father, playmaker Yaisien represented France at the 2011 Under-17 World Cup, cementing his status as one of the game’s young artists known for his composure and absorbing vision.
Tottenham progressed as one of the top third-placed sides and will hope to take inspiration from their thumping 4-1 victory over Barcelona. But they will have to survive without their brightest spark in the group stage, Alex Pritchard, whose performances secured him a deadline-day loan move to Championship side Peterborough United.
This makes way for 19-year-old striker Shaquille Coulthirst (pictured) to step forward. He grabbed a hat-trick in that demolition of Barcelona, following his two goals in last season’s competition, in which they reached the semi-finals. Spurs withdrew from the tournament after admitting to fielding an ineligible player, being replaced in the semis by Liverpool. Speaking of whom...
Barcelona v Chelsea (Wed 20 Feb, 6pm, Mini Estadi)The second-round draw has thrown up one of the most interesting and watchable encounters of the tournament so far.Barcelona, famed for their La Masia academy, have 17-year-old Xavi Quintilla amongst their squad – one of the brightest talents in the tournament. Arsenal are chasing the the versatile defender/midfielder, praised for his intelligence, first touch and vision which has seen him likened to Sergio Busquets.
Chelsea’s debut in the tournament has been relatively solid: they came through as one of the best-third placed teams, despite finding difficulty against the perhaps unlikely group winners CSKA Moscow.
The Londoners' star-studded squad is filled with players that could propel them to the further rounds of the competition but one stand-out youngster is Islam Feruz (pictured). The Somalia-born Scotland youth international signed for Chelsea from Celtic after rejecting a contract with the Scottish giants in 2011; seen as one of Chelsea’s hottest prospects, he proved his worth with four goals in the Blues' final two group games.
Sporting v Liverpool (Wed 20 Feb, 7pm, Estadio Jose Alvalade) Lisbon side Sporting qualified top of their group, but not without a few slips: in among the four wins were defeats to PSV and Aston Villa.
Last year’s quarter-finalists have been somewhat reliant on 18-year-old forward Carlos Mané, who contributed three goals in the group stage. The Portuguese youth international has already represented his country at junior level 41 times, netting 10 times in the process.
Liverpool were officially third in last season’s tournament after defeating Marseille in the third/fourth-place play-off, but they have failed to impress so far this season. They qualified from the group as one of the best third-placed sides despite three losses, one against each side.
Conor Coady (pictured) has proved absolutely vital in this year’s campaign. The former England Under-17 captain has netted five times so far in this competition in what has been a busy season for the 19-year-old, who made his first-team debut in November against Anzhi Makhachkala. Much like Mané, Coady has accumulated a host of appearances for his country at youth level – the Englishman has 44 caps and counting.
CSKA Moscow v PSV Eindhoven (Wed 27 Feb, time TBC, Akdeniz Stadium, Turkey)CSKA Moscow have been the surprise package of this year’s tournament as they topped their group above Ajax and Chelsea. Gela Zaseev captained the Russians throughout the group stage as the 20-year-old guided a solid, well-organised CSKA side through tough fixtures against Ajax (last year’s runners-up) and a star-studded Chelsea outfit. The central midfielder netted twice throughout the first round, including a decisive winner against Molde.
PSV Eindhoven could have taken second place if it wasn’t for their defeat to bottom-of-the-group Celtic. Rai Vloet (pictured) has been an integral part of their tournament so far, offering tournament-winning international experience to the side: he was part of the Netherlands team that won the 2012 U17 European Championship. His goal secured PSV all three points against Sporting – a key result in their progression.
Olympiacos v Anderlecht (Thu 28 Feb, 7pm, Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium)In name, Olympiacos versus Anderlecht doesn’t seem the most exciting of ties; but in detail, it could be one of the most enthralling displays of youth football around.
Goals were an issue for Olympiacos throughout the group stage. Despite finishing top of their group they only scored four times but built on a solid defence.
The Piraeus club’s star asset is Vasilis Karagounis. The 19-year-old left-back is speedy and composed, with an eye to getting forward down the flank. Olympiacos signed the youngster from Udinese after he failed to fulfil his potential in Italy following a move from Atromitos; back in his native Greece, he is looking much more promising.
Anderlecht’s academy goes unnoticed as one of the biggest producers of quality football talent across Europe. Romelu Lukaku, Vincent Kompany and Marouane Fellaini all played for the prestigious set-up and the latest highly-regarded teenager is 18-year-old striker Nathan Kabasele (pictured). He’s already appeared numerous times in the Belgian side’s first team and at youth international level.
Inter Milan v Arsenal (Wed 6 Mar, 7pm, Breda Stadium)Standing between Arsenal and the quarter-finals are last season’s champions Inter Milan, who won a penalty shootout duel with Ajax to lift the trophy. The Italians finished top of their group, equal on points with Rosenborg, led by 18-year-old Luca Garritano. The striker, who is co-owned by Cesena, scored twice in the groups and earned himself a first-team debut in the Europa League.
Like Chelsea, Arsenal are making their NextGen debut. Under Arsene Wenger they have always tried to produce youthful talent from within, and they advanced from the group stage narrowly behind Olympiacos.
Thomas Eisfeld (pictured) is one of many higher-profile players that have contributed to that progression. Wenger signed the 20-year-old from Dortmund in 2012 after he impressed for their youth academy and has since given him first-team opportunities including a senior debut in the League Cup. The attacking midfielder has been likened to Mario Goetze, despite coming under criticism from the British media upon signing for the Gunners – something that will make him even more determined to succeed and prove them wrong.
Juventus v Rosenborg (Thu 7th Mar, 8.30pm, Stadio Moccagatta, Alessandria)Juventus narrowly missed out on top spot in Group 2: they were 12 minutes away from taking it but let a two-goal lead slip against eventual group winners Paris St Germain.
Stefano Beltrame scored that day and will hope to fire Juve’s Primavera through the torunament. The 19-year-old was part of the Italy U19 team that narrowly missed out on qualification to last year’s Euros, losing to eventual tournament winners Spain. That goal against PSG was his only one so far in the tournament but Beltrame shows the potential to play a major part in Juventus’ advancement.
Rosenborg join CSKA Moscow as the shock contenders so far. Highly regarded in Norway, they beat Liverpool, Inter Milan and Dortmund on their way to finishing second in their group.
The 19-year-old Magnus Blakstad has been a key figure in their development throughout the tournament, grabbing a goal against each team, proving his ability to score at varying levels. He was included in Rosenborg’s Europa League squad this season. Despite not being able to aid his team’s cause, at his tender age there is much hope for one of Norway’s hottest properties.
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