Bright future for Aston Villa as they win NextGen Series 2012/13
It may have escaped the attentions of many neutrals but yesterday Aston Villa were crowned Champions of Europe. Champions League it was not, but securing the NextGen Series crown for 2012/13 will have been received with great positivity and celebration.
Chelsea's Under 19's were the opposition in Lake Como, having set up an all-English final after beating Arsenal in their semi-final and boasted a very strong team including the likes of highly rated Islam Feruz and Jeremie Boga.
Despite spirited performances from both sides though, Aston Villa came out eventual winners, securing a 2-0 victory courtesy of two Graham Burke strikes from the penalty spot. Comfortable as it sounds, Villa were never really safe until Chelsea's Alex Kiwomya was sent off late on at 1-0 for a second bookable offence. Minutes later Burke tucked home his second to confirm Villa's title and bring much welcomed success to the club.
It completed a fine turnaround of fortunes for Villa's young guns, a side that lost their first two NextGen group games this season - to Sporting Lisbon and PSV respectively - only to respond in formidable fashion, winning seven of their remaining games in an eight match unbeaten streak.
Success in the final was made more impressive by Villa's confidence in the absence of the tournament's top scorer, Michael Drennan. The six-goal striker sat out of both the semi-final against Sporting Lisbon and the final due to injury, yet replacement Callum Robinson showed Villa's impressive strength in depth.
One of the main aims of the tournament has been to identify new young talent and provide a platform for players to develop in a competitive environment rather than through meaningless friendlies. In the first campaign Inter Milan beat Ajax, an Ajax side that contained a young striker by the name of Viktor Fischer. So impressive were Fischer's display for the NextGen side that he was offered an opportunity in the first team at the start of this season and hasn't looked back, securing a regular starting berth and plaudits across the European football media.
Closer to home, Liverpool have shown how important NextGen has been to them with three players from last years NextGen campaign making the step up to the first team this year. Raheem Sterling - now a household name among football fans - Suso and Andre Wisdom have all received first team opportunities this season largely based on their performances last year against their under-19 equivalent opponents.
So who can we expect to see make the breakthrough to the first team at Villa after such a successful NextGen Series? Of course you can never predict the likelihood of a successful transition from youth football to senior but there is plenty of optimism for Villa fans in the handful of youngsters with great potential.
With defensive frailties a clear and obvious problem for Villa in the Premier League this season, Janoi Donacien could have thrown himself in to Paul Lambert's consideration set after a series of fine displays in the tournament. As part of the Villa defensive set-up, Donacien took on the authoritative role across the back line and led by example throughout.
Going forward Samir Carruthers, a former Arsenal trainee, is in his final year of being eligible for the NextGen side and has been attracting first team calls from a number of Villa fans. The midfielder looks hugely comfortable at this level and could well make the step up in the near future. Meanwhile striker Callum Robinson has been blessed with trickery and pace, a deadly combination.
However arguably the greatest talent in Villa's academy is Jack Grealish. The youngster has already been named on the bench for the senior squad in a Premier League game so has clearly caught the eye of senior team management. Capable of playing across the midfield on either flank or just behind the striker, Grealish has a keen eye for goal but equally creates chances at will. With the disappointing lack of progression from Barry Bannan, Grealish could soon find himself pushing for a first team spot.
Villa's record of promoting youngsters to the first team is impeccable, albeit with mixed success so you wouldn't discount any popping up in the first team side over the next twelve months. In the last three years alone, Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Marc Albrighton, Barry Bannan and Andreas Weimann have made the step up, and though consistency has been an issue for all, they have all displayed great potential for playing at the top level. It may be hugely debatable but the current NextGen crop look to possess even more potential than the afore-mentioned five.
Of course the success of the NextGen side should not mask Villa's first team failure domestically but the future is undoubtedly bright for Paul Lambert's men. Even barring the disastrous possibility of relegation, the chances that would then be afforded to these talented youngsters could actually work to Villa's advantage in the long term.
So Villa fans celebrate, not just the welcome arrival of silverware, but the arrival of a new beginning.
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