NextGen Series: The Stars of Tomorrow

(Article first featured on In Our Humble Opinion 02/04/12)

The inaugural NextGen Series tournament finished last week with Inter beating Ajax on penalties in the final after a gripping 1-1 game couldn’t separate the two sides.  The tournament which began back in August featured 16 of the best academy teams from around Europe in a Champions League style competition and, after its success, the organizers hope to extend it to 24 teams with Athletic Bilbao, Chelsea, Olimpiakos and PSG already confirmed.  This year’s addition has given us a glimpse of some of the brightest young talents of tomorrow and In Our Humble Opinion is here to run the rule over some of the starlets who caught the eye.

Despite an opening 7-1 humbling in their first game vs. Spurs, Inter remained unbeaten for the rest of the tournament as they went on to lift the title.  The well-organised Italians contained plenty of good players but the stand-out player of the side was Brazilian-born Italian trequartista Daniel Bessa.  A skilful player with good feet, he provided the assist in the final with a delicious no-look pass, and throughout the tournament always looking dangerous as he drifted in-between midfield and defence during his energetic displays.  Intelligent, technically excellent with great vision and good running with the ball at feet he looks set to have a great future ahead of him.

Up front Samuele Longo scored some important goals and constantly caused problems for defences, while Ghanaian Joseph Duncan was the midfield lynch pin who expertly shielded his back four.  Lorenzo Crisetig, who has already made his senior debut vs. CSKA and been capped 3 times by the under-21s, was another impressive player for the Italians.  The tall midfielder possesses a lovely left foot and proved to be deadly from set pieces.  All these young players could well feature for the Italian giants in years to come with president Massimo Moratti saying that “there are three or four members of the Primavera who could be introduced to the first team” as Inter look to save their faltering season.

Arguably the biggest revelation to come out of the team was not a player but new Inter coach Andrea Stramaccioni who was promoted to the first team position after the vacancy left by the now departed Tinkerman Ranieri.  At 36 there have been inevitable comparisons with ex-Inter boss Mourinho, leading to labels such as Stra-Mou-ccioni and The Stramoucci-ONE, and he is even over two years younger than the ever green Javier Zanetti.  However, there is plenty to back his reputation as one of the most promising Italian coaches with Arrigo Sacchi has likened his hiring to when “Joan Laporta entrusted Barcelona to Pep Guardiola”.  Whether he can succeed remains to be seen but it certainly suggests a potentially new direction for Inter with Stramaccioni perfectly placed to get the best out of their promising youngsters.

One of the other stars of the competition was young Danish striker Viktor Fischer, beaten finalist with Ajax.  He scored seven times as the attractive Dutch side marched towards the final in impressive form, the pick of the bunch being a 6-0 demolition of Liverpool, Fischer grabbing a fine hat-trick. Fischer was again on target with a brace as they also disposed of the much fancied Barcelona with ease.  Still only 17, he is seen as the most exciting prospect at Ajax and has obviously drawn comparisons his club mate and compatriot Christian Eriksen.  Captain Davy Klaassen also had a fantastic tournament, scoring five times and showing powerful performances from an attacking midfield role.  He has already played for the Ajax first team and could be an important player for Holland in years to come.

The golden boot went to Barcelona’s young Cameroonian striker Jean-Marie Dongou, one of the most highly rated players to come out of La Masia of late and who recently came on for Barcelona B to score his first senior goal in a 2-1 win over Alcoyano.  The 16-year-old scored seven times to claim the prize, adding to his rapidly growing stock, and is seen by many as the next Samuel Eto’o.  He scored a whopping 70 goals in one season at youth level and it won’t be long before the young striker is lining up alongside the likes of Messi & co.

Another promising player for the Blaugrana is left back Alex Grimaldo, who already holds the claim of the third youngest player to represent Barcelona, making his debut for the Bs at the tender age of 15 years, 10 months and 20 days. A bullet quick full back, always looking to bomb forward and providing pin point crosses, he recently scored for the U17s in a 4-0 win vs. England although this wasn’t enough to help Spain qualify.  What with doubts over the long term left back position, he could be the one to solve their long term problems if he continues his current trajectory.

The UK was well represented with five clubs; Aston Villa, Manchester City, Liverpool, Spurs and Celtic.  The pick of the young English players was Aston Villa starlet Gary Gardner. The box-to-box midfield captain scored an impressive 6 goals, including a superb hat-trick against finalists Ajax and the Young Lion has gone on to play for Villa nine times this season.  Younger brother of former Villain Craig, he is highly regarded at Villa Park and has also played for England under-21s, scoring twice against Iceland in a 5-0 win back in November.  In what has been a season of few positives for Villa, Gardner has been one of the rays of light and hopefully will develop into an important player for them over the next seasons

Liverpool progressed furthest out of the home nation sides, losing to Ajax in the semi-finals.  The standout player for them was Raheem Sterling, signed from QPR two years ago in a deal that could rise to £5million.  The 17-year-old has recently made his first team debut for the Reds and has been earmarked as one for the future despite some off the field problems. A tricky winger, with bags of pace and a repertoire of skills, he was England’s stand out player at the under-17 World Cup last summer, scoring a beauty against Rwanda.  Other players to keep an eye on from that Liverpool squad include Connor Coady, Jordan Ibe and Michael Ngoo.

Another promising youngster representing a British club was Spurs Ivorian striker Souleymane Coulibaly.  He scored three times, including two against eventual champions Inter, to follow on from his breath-taking performance at the under-17 World Cup where he equalled the goal scoring record with 9 goals in 4 games, a strike rate of one every 40 minutes.  Capable of scoring all types of goals, I’m a huge admirer of his and Spurs fans should be very exciting about the prospect of seeing him at the Lane.

The tournament has also acted as a shop window with some players earning a move due to their NextGen performances.  Rosenborg’s Mushaga Bakenga, scorer of six goals, was snapped up by Club Brugge for €2.6million while Liverpool signed Joao Carlos Teixeira for £850,000 after his goal-scoring display against them for Sporting Lisbon.  Of that Sporting side, another player who impressed was forward Alberto Coelho, who also netted six times including a spectacular bicycle kick against Liverpool.

Some of these players have already made their bows in the top leagues around Europe and we will no doubt see plenty more of them in years to come.  The NextGen Series will above all have provided great competition experience for these young charges and looks set to become a permanent and important fixture on the footballing calendar.  While predicting the futures of these undoubtedly talented wonderkids has its difficulties, it is nevertheless very likely that the likes of Fischer, Gardner, Dongou et al could well go on to be stars of the future.