After weeks and months of preparation, teams representing historic clubs such as Ajax, Barcelona, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Marseille and PSV Eindhoven began their quest to be crowned the best in Europe back in August 2011. Eight months of competition against the cream of the continent was ahead, with a tricky group stage to be navigated before crucial knockout ties decided who deserved the trophy.
It was not, however, the UEFA Champions League in the sights of the 16 clubs participating in the tournament but the inaugural NextGen Series title, a brand new competition which pits some of the finest U-19 sides in the region against one another. Devised by Mark Warburton, the NextGen Series gives rising professionals the chance to battle with other youth teams from across Europe and develop their skills in a competitive and challenging arena.
The first edition of the tournament concluded last Sunday, with Italy’s Inter claiming a penalty shoot-out victory against Dutch side Ajax following a 1-1 draw in the final, which was held in London. In a dramatic showpiece befitting any senior competition, I Nerazzurri played the remainder of normal time as well as the whole of extra time with ten men after the 70th-minute dismissal of defender Ibrahima Mbaye, but held on resolutely until spot-kicks.
Ajax had been considerable favourites before the final began, having demolished Liverpool 6-0 in their semi-final 11 days previously. Inspired by the goals of tournament joint-top scorer Viktor Fischer and captain Davy Klaassen, who grabbed a hat-trick and a brace respectively against the Reds, the team from the Netherlands had despatched Barcelona in the last eight after finishing second behind Aston Villa in the group stage.
They were on the front foot throughout the opening period against the Italians but paid for their profligacy shortly before half-time when influential playmaker Daniel Bessa set up Samuele Longo to secure a 1-0 advantage at the break. Well-drilled and dogged defensively, Andrea Stramaccioni’s Inter side had shown great strides since losing their opening game of the tournament 7-1 to Tottenham Hotspur.
The lead did not last long, though, and Ajax levelled within minutes of the restart courtesy of a ferocious free-kick from Stefane Denswil. Inter rallied despite the red card midway through the second half but Klaassen could have ended the tie in Ajax’s favour as extra time approached. However, his last-gasp header from a Mithail Dijks cross came back off the woodwork, meaning 30 more minutes were required.
Next it was Inter’s turn to feel unfortunate as midfielder Lorenzo Crisetig saw his long-range strike smack the crossbar. Lady Luck had seemingly deserted both teams, with each goalscorer coming close to doubling their personal and collective tally. First Denswil hit the frame of the goal with a carbon copy of his original effort, before Longo was denied by the bar after beating goalkeeper Mickey van der Hart.
Ajax still had time to have a goal disallowed for offside but the first-ever NextGen Series was decided on penalty kicks. Inter held their nerve to the delight of both the players and coach Stramaccioni, whose short-term pleasure at winning the competition was enhanced just 24 hours later when the 36-year-old was handed the first-team reins by club president Massimo Moratti in place of the outgoing Claudio Ranieri.
The drama of the final was the perfect conclusion to a competition which had grown in stature as it progressed. An ideal balance between high-scoring encounters and tight affairs was found throughout the group stage, before the quality level was increased further once the knockout ties began. “It is like playing internationals,” said Filip Twardzik of Celtic, who were unfortunate to fall at the first hurdle.
With 56 matches completed at venues across the continent – from Glasgow to Lisbon, Amsterdam to Istanbul – and a total of 193 goals scored, the tournament was an undoubted success according to players and coaches who took part. “In my time, it was very difficult to play teams at the same age from different countries. This NextGen Series is fantastic for all clubs involved,” said former Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira, who is now head of Manchester City’s Elite Development Squad.
Having been knocked out in the last eight by Tottenham Hotspur – who later withdrew after breaching the competition’s rules – Liverpool reached the semi-finals, something which clearly pleased Damien Comolli. “It’s important for our youngsters to face a different type of football, to play in big stadiums and to take the players out of their comfort zone of always facing the same teams and type of football,” the club’s Director of Football explained.
Former Manchester United striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who is now coach of Norwegian outfit Molde, was in agreement. “It’s fantastic for us; first of all for the local community and for our players, it’s a benchmark on where they have to be to be successful footballers in their careers.” With Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain already signed up for future editions, amid talk of extending the pool to 24 teams, the NextGen Series may soon be setting more benchmarks.