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Basel coming of age in UEFA Youth League

"Last year we were too young, now we've grown," said Arxhend Cani, a member of the FC Basel 1893 side that struggled in the inaugural competition but now top Group B.

Basel got the better of Madrid, having lost in Spain on matchday one
Basel got the better of Madrid, having lost in Spain on matchday one ©UEFA.com

UEFA Champions League winner Fernando Hierro and fellow Real Madrid CF great Emilio Butragueño were there, as were ex-FC Basel 1893 playmaker Hakan Yakin and former first-team coach Thorsten Fink, wrapped up warm ahead of 90 minutes that promised much in Basel on Wednesday.

Along with the footballing glitterati, the red and blue of the hosts and the iconic, globally recognised pristine white of the visitors were more than familiar, though not the names on the backs of the shirts.

The only Benzemas and Ronaldos to be seen were emblazoned on the replica jerseys of fans in the stands, yet the two clubs' UEFA Youth League encounter – kicking off six hours before the main event a short distance away at St. Jakob-Park – had little to distinguish it from the day's top billing save for the fact that the only households in which its protagonists have a name (currently) is their own.

Surely for some of those on show, that will change. Many of the 700-strong crowd were no doubt lured to the junior game by the prospect of being able to say: "I saw him play when he wasn't famous." They most likely arrived at Basel's training complex expecting the star of the future to come from Madrid's ranks. One suspects they left thinking Basel's own future is just as bright, if not brighter, after a thrilling 3-2 home victory.

"It was a great display from the whole team," gifted midfielder Arxhend Cani, whose majestic rising drive for the opening goal set the tone, told UEFA.com. "We showed once again what we're capable of. We played well and scored goals."

Matchday three: Ludogorets 0-5 Basel
Matchday three: Ludogorets 0-5 Basel©PFC Ludogorets Razgrad

That is what Basel have done throughout their five Group B matches so far. After losing 2-0 in Madrid in their opening fixture, Thomas Häberli's squad have reeled off four successive wins, scoring 17 goals, to move to the brink of qualification. However, Cani argued the opportunity to play at such a level, and travel with the first team on their UEFA Champions League away trips, was much more valuable than the sweet but fleeting taste of success.

"The experience is more important," the 17-year-old explained. "As young players, we need these kinds of experiences in order to compare ourselves with better players and better teams, to get used to the higher standard of play and the pressure. Not every team in Switzerland can do that. When you travel with the senior team, you can see them, follow their example, talk to them, and look at what they're doing."

Breel Embolo in action against Madrid
Breel Embolo in action against Madrid©AFP/Getty Images

Cani and Co will join Paulo Sousa's men on the plane to England early next month, with both sides knowing they will progress to the knockout rounds of their respective competition if they avoid defeat against their Liverpool FC counterparts. For the junior squad, such an achievement appeared a pipedream given last season's group stage ended with Basel bottom of their section with a single point.

"Last year we were a little too young. Now we've grown. We're also more united. For me it's great to be able to play against big teams," Cani said, adding that 17-year-old forward Breel Embolo – whom his former youth-team colleagues watched go up against Sergio Ramos and Raphaël Varane that same evening – gave hope that the UEFA Youth League performers of today could be tomorrow's starlet promoted to the seniors.

"You can see that you may get the chance to rise to play for the first team. Breel Embolo is the example we all hope to follow."