With the star-studded under-19 NextGen tournament almost at the knockout stages, Tom Bennett recaps the tournament so far Ã¢ÂÂ and unveils some names to watch out for...
After the unprecedented success of last yearÃ¢ÂÂs inaugural tournament, we have reached the halfway stage of this seasonÃ¢ÂÂs NextGen Series Ã¢ÂÂ and it has thrown up the same quantity and quality of exciting football as the U19 competition so promisingly offered last time out.
Last yearÃ¢ÂÂs winners Inter Milan have progressed to the second round, while runners-up Ajax are also looking keen to emulate last seasonÃ¢ÂÂs form.
Sporting, Barcelona and Chelsea are among the other impressive sides in this yearÃ¢ÂÂs feisty tournament, which has seen three big surprises in the form of PFC CSKA, Rosenborg and Olympiacos who have all comfortably qualified from their groups.
There are six groups of four teams, with each group's top two plus the four best runners-up going through to the last 16, when the straight knockouts begin. And we know 15 of the 16 teams who've made it through Ã¢ÂÂ including Premier League sides Arsenal, Aston Villa and Tottenham plus European giants Juventus, Sporting, PSG and PSV Ã¢ÂÂ with Liverpool nervously waiting to see if they can join them.
If youÃ¢ÂÂve missed the action so far, you can catch most of the knockout games live on Eurosport. A full TV schedule is available from the NextGen Series official website.
And a quick reminder: for this season, NextGen players must be born on or after 1st January 1994, with a maximum of three squad members born on or after 1st January 1993. This is your chance to spot the next Raheem Sterling, who played in last season's competition and is still young enough to take part, if he weren't rather busy elsewhere...
Anderlecht, Barcelona, Tottenham Hotspur
This has been one of the most competitive and closest-fought groups in this yearÃ¢ÂÂs tournament. Perhaps inevitably though, Barcelona Ã¢ÂÂ one of the competition favourites, unsurprisingly given their prestigious youth academy based at La Masia Ã¢ÂÂ prevailed and secured their spot as group winners.
PICTURE SPECIALBehind the scenes at La Masia
Despite finishing top, they didn't have it all their own way, losing twice and drawing once in their six games. They started with a 1-1 draw at eventual runners-up Anderlecht, Toni Sanabria saved their blushes by cancelling out Nathan KabaseleÃ¢ÂÂs effort just after half-time. They quickly put that lacklustre performance behind them, beating Tottenham 2-0 and walloping Wolfsburg 5-0.
Another draw with Anderlecht in mid-October was followed by a thumping 4-1 defeat on home territory by Spurs. They were completely outplayed by the North London club, who saw their star striker Shaquille Coulthirst net a hat-trick to add to Alex PritchardÃ¢ÂÂs individual effort.
Colthirst takes on BarÃÂ§a at White Hart Lane
That demoralising defeat left Barcelona desperate for a final matchday win Ã¢ÂÂ and fortunately for them, that was comfortable enough as they beat Wolfsburg 3-1.
In turn, that made the group's final game, between Tottenham and Anderlecht, a virtual second-placed play-off with the winner progressing to the next stage of the competition. Anderlecht prevailed with a 2-0 victory Ã¢ÂÂ but as it turned out, Spurs' total of eight points saw them progress anyway as one of the best third-placed teams.
Fenerbahce, Juventus, Manchester City, Paris St Germain
Just as Paris St GermainÃ¢ÂÂs senior side are having a memorable season, so their youngsters are making great strides as they comfortably progressed to the NextGen second round. Italian side Juventus finished marginally behind the French club but drew too many games to challenge PSG.
However, the top spot could have gone either way as the two teams faced each other in the penultimate group game on 19th December. Egyptian Abdallah Yaisien opened the scoring for the French side with a marvellous effort after 33 minutes and Kingsley ComanÃ¢ÂÂs second threatened JuventusÃ¢ÂÂ 11-match unbeaten run in all competitions.
However, Stefano Beltrame and Matteo Gauberdo managed to claw Juve level in the final 12 minutes to share the points and see their side finish with a respectable 12 points, only one behind the group winners.
Fenerbahce had a miserable time, picking up only two draws while conceding 13 times. Their two points came against Manchester City and Juventus; managing to match the Turin clubÃ¢ÂÂs three goals was the Turkish side's tournament highlight.
Also underperforming in Europe Ã¢ÂÂ and thus mirroring their senior team's season Ã¢ÂÂ were Manchester City. Their five-point haul was the worst third-place total and therefore the English champions' youth academy will not proceed to the next stage of this competition.
Ajax, Chelsea, CSKA Moscow, Molde
Chelsea and Ajax are still left to fight it out in Group 3 with their tie the group's only remaining fixture, scheduled for January.
When Chelsea hosted the two clubs' first fixture in early December it finished in a goalless draw but both teams will be eager to triumph in the return fixture as the group winners are guaranteed top spot Ã¢ÂÂ and thus home advantage in their one-off second-round game.
Ajax will be keen to build on last yearÃ¢ÂÂs heartbreaking final defeat to Inter Milan and will look to their group form to scare the rest of the competition into knowing that theyÃ¢ÂÂre serious about going one better this year. Whatever the result though, both teams, as well as current leaders PFC CSKA will all progress to the round of 16.
England U21 cap Nathaniel Chalobah takes on CSKA
The Russians, who have produced legends such as current first-team goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev, have been somewhat a surprise team of the tournament. They havenÃ¢ÂÂt been the most prolific side, scoring eight in six games, but have picked up key results, beating Ajax 2-0 in October and Chelsea 2-1 away in August.
Molde were the whipping boys, conceding a staggering 20 goals, mostly in three games against Ajax and Chelsea: the Londoners beat them 6-0 whilst the Amsterdam side twice bagged five.
One of the most talked-about strikers in youth football has lived up to his reputation and taken Group 3 by storm. Viktor Fischer has scored four times for Ajax, including a hat-trick against Molde. The 18-year-old has broken into the club's first team this season and has already grabbed five goals in his 15 appearances this term for them. The young Dane has huge things on his agenda for 2013 and Ajax will hope that one of them will be firing them to NextGen glory.
Aston Villa, Celtic, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting
Aston Villa were the first British team to qualify from this yearÃ¢ÂÂs group stage as they concluded their campaign by hammering Portuguese side Sporting 5-1.
Quarter-finalists last year, the Villans have this yearÃ¢ÂÂs top scorer so far in Mike Drennan, who has netted five goals in the groups. The 18-year-old IrishmanÃ¢ÂÂs impressive form included a brace in that thumping win over Sporting.
Drennan: Among the goals for Villa
Despite that lapse in their final group game, Sporting always looked like comfortably progressing. They opened their campaign by winning at Villa before inflicting the first of their double victory over Celtic.
Sporting suffered another minor slip with a single-goal defeat at PSV Eindhoven, but they restored pride when they gained revenge with a convincing 4-2 win in late October.
PSV will qualify as one of the best third-placed sides but could have been secure in second if it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt for their 3-1 defeat at bottom-of-the-group Celtic.
Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, Liverpool, Rosenborg
Inter Milan went into the competition as the reigning champions and have shown their prowess with a string of convincing displays.
Having said that, if Liverpool beat them by three goals or more in this group's sole remaining fixture Inter would finish second behind Rosenborg, who have collected enough points to see them progress to the next stage.
Inter and Liverpool kicked off this group in September when the Italians ran out 3-2 winners on home soil. A brace from Liverpool's Krisztian Adorjan wasn't enough to match goals from Francesco Forte, Niccolo Belloni and Luca Garritano for the Primavera.
Perhaps reflecting that the Norwegian season finishes in November, Rosenborg have been off form in their final three group games, losing against Liverpool and Inter and drawing at Dortmund. However, they began this yearÃ¢ÂÂs tournament with a run of three consecutive victories, so they'd already done enough to see themselves through.
Rosenborg will finish runners-up unless Liverpool leather Inter in that final fixture. If the Reds fail to beat the holders, they will go out Ã¢ÂÂ but any victory would see them through as one of the best third-placed teams at the expense of Group 6 side Marseille.
Athletic Bilbao, Arsenal, Olympiacos, Marseille
The tightest of all the groups. Only two points separate the four teams Ã¢ÂÂ and it's still undecided despite all fixtures being fulfilled, as Marseille await the final Group 5 game between Inter and Liverpool. If the English side beat the holders, they would progress as a third-placed team at the French side's expense.
That would leave Marseille kicking themselves, but they let themselves down in their remarkable final group game at bottom club Athletic Bilbao. The French side started strongly but lost 5-0 through strikes from Inaki Williams, Unai Lopez, a double from Mikel Santamaria and an own goal.
That allowed Arsenal to power past Marseille into second place with a 4-2 win over the Basque side. Terry Burton's young Gunners had failed to score in their previous four NextGen games but the two goalless draws in that run, plus their opening 3-0 win against Marseille, gave them the platform to briefly top the group following that beating of Bilbao.
Sadly for Arsenal, they had to settle for second place (and therefore an away draw in the knockouts) after Olympiacos finished their campaign with a single-goal victory over Bilbao. The Greeks went largely unnoticed throughout the group stage, starting with a 4-0 defeat in the Basque country back in August.
They beat Arsenal 2-0 with two late goals in Piraeus, then ground out draws at Marseille and Arsenal before a 1-1 home draw with the French side. With only two wins and a negative goal difference, they were the worst-performing group winners Ã¢ÂÂ not that manager Konstantinos Vernikos will be any less delighted at his sideÃ¢ÂÂs place in the round of 16.
Qualified for round of 16
(starred teams as top place and thus to be drawn at home):
Ajax, Anderlecht, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Barcelona*, Chelsea, CSKA Moscow, Inter Milan, Juventus, Paris St Germain*, PSV Eindhoven, Olympiacos*, Rosenborg, Sporting*, Tottenham.
To be joined by Liverpool or Marseille. Top place yet to be decided in Groups 3 and 5.
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