As a new era was ushered in by FC Viktoria Plzeň and Manchester City FC on 17 September, UEFA.com was present in the Czech Republic to see the start of the UEFA Youth League. Established to aid player development and bridge the gap between youth and senior squads the competition mirrors the UEFA Champions League, with all the teams qualified for that tournament entering Under-19 sides into the fledgling event.
With Plzeň's training ground hosting the inaugural game of the UEFA Youth League on the morning of matchday one, UEFA.com was there to see how the contest impacted on the players, coaches and clubs involved.
Countdown to kick-off
"It is definitely a positive that they'll be able to compare their skills against players of the same age from top European clubs. I think this experience will be priceless," said Jirí Žilák, the Czech champions' U19 coach, as the clock ticked down to kick-off. As well as providing a competitive environment in which players take on the best of their continental peers, the tournament is also designed to help young players prepare for life in the senior ranks – something City manager Patrick Vieira observed while flying out of England.
"It is good because the players get a feeling for what they can expect when they are in the first team," said the 1998 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2000 winner. "We had a really good chance to travel with the first team, with journalists asking them questions – that is the experience needed to develop on and off the field."
History is made
A healthy crowd witnessed history in the making in Plzen, with a new chapter written in the record books after only ten minutes. The competition's first goal arrived courtesy of Sinan Bytyqi's expert free-kick for Manchester City. Marcos Lopes doubled the visitors' lead before Miloš Kratochvíl raised a mighty roar from the locals as he pulled one back. However, Devante Cole's strike and a second from Marcos secured a 4-1 City victory. "I am very happy, very proud," said opening goalscorer Bytyqi. "It is always good to write some history for the team. We played really well. I am very proud of the goal and the team's performance. It was a really good game."
With the competition launched, both coaches were overwhelmingly positive about their first-hand experience of the tournament. "We played against Czech football today, next it's German football [FC Bayern München] and then Russian football [PFC CSKA Moskva]," said Vieira. "It is three different types of football so they have to adapt to any kind of game. That is a fantastic experience for them."
For Žilák the benefits were evident on and off the field. "I can see two main contributions. The first is definitely the sporting contest – facing top-class European footballers – which can't really happen in domestic competition. The other is all the attention the players receive. It is a big source of motivation for them all. They have to handle the pressure connected with the UEFA Youth League."
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