Eyes on the prize

The UEFA Youth League finals are set to take place opposite UEFA’s headquarters, with some familiar names targeting the Lennart Johansson Trophy.

FC Salzburg lifted the UEFA Youth League trophy last year
FC Salzburg lifted the UEFA Youth League trophy last year ©Sportsfile

Record crowds, famous faces, high drama – the UEFA Youth League was designed to prepare Europe’s youngsters for senior club football, and it is certainly hitting the mark.

Indeed, a massive sell-out crowd of 32,510 watched as FC Krasnodar hosted Real Madrid CF in the play-offs in February. For fans, this competition is an exciting opportunity to catch a glimpse of potential stars of the future, while for players, performing under such scrutiny is all part of the learning curve on their journeys to the top. “That was a UEFA Champions League-standard stadium,” said Real Madrid defender Adri, whose side advanced on penalties after a goalless draw. “It was great to show what we could do in front of such a big, appreciative crowd.”

For Krasnodar midfielder Artem Golubev, there were also plenty of positives, despite the result. “We have taken a lot from playing in the Youth League, because we have faced teams with a variety of different styles and tactics,” he said. “The huge crowd did not put any extra pressure on us – far from it. The fans were our 12th man, and we are all grateful to everyone who came to watch us.”

Rendez-vous in Nyon on 20 and 23 April
This season, 64 clubs from a record 43 UEFA member associations have participated in the Youth League. Attention will soon be turning to the semi-finals and the final, which will take place on 20 and 23 April at Colovray stadium, opposite UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon, to see who will be crowned champions.

Last season, FC Salzburg were the surprise winners, and the fact that their coach, Marco Rose, has since been promoted to the senior side shows that coaches, too, are benefiting from the Youth League experience. Champions League winner Steven Gerrard is a new face on the bench at Liverpool’s U19 team, and his side’s 2-0 win over old rival Nicky Butt’s Manchester United FC was one of the standout results from the round of 16.

The scorer of Liverpool’s opening goal in that game, Ben Woodburn, already holds the record as Liverpool’s youngest-ever scorer and is second only to Gareth Bale as Wales’s youngest scorer, and catching a glimpse of Europe’s next generation of outstanding young talent is a key part of the Youth League’s attraction. The competition is only in its fifth season, but already the list of alumni performing at the highest levels is hugely impressive. In last season’s UEFA Europa League final, for example, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford came up against AFC Ajax duo Matthijs de Ligt and Kasper Dolberg – all three of them recent Youth League graduates. And this season, heads are being turned by the likes of Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden, who in December became the youngest English player ever to start a Champions League match but continues to gain experience with the club’s Youth League side.

Invaluable experience
Such experience is being acquired both on and off the pitch. Many of the teams travel to matches with their respective senior sides, giving youngsters a chance to rub shoulders with the first team, ask advice and gain first-hand experience of what a Champions League away game is all about. Meanwhile, the opportunity to spend time and share a meal with the opposition and match officials after games helps to emphasise UEFA’s respect message.

This all contributes to the players’ development and helps them to make the step up to senior football. “Such great matches against such good opponents accelerate the growth of these players,” Atlético coach Manolo Cano confirms. A ringing endorsement of a competition that continues to hit its targets.

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 176