By Liam Twomey
For the first time since 1996, the Premier League's finest will be no more than sullen spectators when the Champions League quarter-finals commence next week.
It is, for some, a depressing fact, and much soul-searching has been done. Is it just one of those things, or the symptom of a wider malaise? Is it perhaps even time to invoke the dreaded word ‘decline’? Arsene Wenger, ever the optimist, described it as “a massive wake-up call for English football”, and stressed the need to “think about the future of the Premier League”.
But for all the portents of doom, those searching for positives do not have to look far. Only as far as the Lombardy region of northern Italy, in fact, where Como’s Stadio Giuseppe Sinigaglia will play host to both semi-finals of the hugely successful NextGen Series on Friday.
The running order is as follows: First up, at 2pm, Chelsea take on Arsenal in what will surely be one of the more surreal London derbies. And then, at 7pm, Aston Villa pit themselves against Portuguese giants Sporting Lisbon. That’s three – yes, three – English sides in the last four of the tournament which currently enjoys the status and prestige of an Under-19 Champions League.
It would have been four, too, had Sporting not seen off both Liverpool and Tottenham in quick succession en route to the semi-finals. Of the six teams from these shores entered into the newly-expanded 24-team tournament this season, five made it to the knockout stages.
There have been no easy passages either. Chelsea have beaten Barcelona away and Juventus at home to get this far. Arsenal defeated Inter in Milan before triumphing over a highly-rated CSKA Moscow side, while Aston Villa outplayed Ajax on their own patch before beating Olympiacos.
Those who downplay the significance of the Premier League’s failure in the Champions League this season would probably be just as inclined to dismiss this achievement as no more than a good year.
|MADE THE GRADE
Liverpool's NextGen graduates
“There is a lot of good young British talent coming through at the moment, so I think it’s a true reflection of where we stand,” he tells Goal.com.
“The NextGen has been a massive help. It’s just another tool you can use to bring the kids on. It’s been a massive learning curve for all the players, and I think it actually speeds up their progress.
“We talk about ‘best against best’ in this country, but I’m not sure it always is. In NextGen, it is because it matches a specific age group against some of the top academies in the world.”
In recent years, few clubs have reaped the rewards of advances in youth development quite like Liverpool. The arrivals of former Barcelona coaches Rodolfo Borrell and Jose Segura in the summer of 2009 initiated a comprehensive re-design of the club’s youth program, with a renewed focus on the principles of technical excellence and ball retention, aligning it with Barca's legendary La Masia.
Borrell took charge of the Reds’ first ever NextGen match, a 3-0 home defeat to Sporting in August 2011. It was a chastening experience, but one his youngsters clearly benefited from; in the two years since, eight of that side have made their first-team debuts, including the likes of Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, Suso, Andre Wisdom and Jack Robinson.
“It’s a remarkable record, really,” McParland continues. “We’ve made a massive improvement, and we’re really proud of the progress we’ve made. It’s been an incredible three years for us.”
|"We’ve made a massive improvement, and we’re really proud of the progress we’ve made. It’s been an incredible three years for us"|
Nevertheless, the last three years have also seen progress at a national level. In 2010, England Under-17s won their first ever European Championship, beating a talented Spain side 2-1 in the final. The England Under-19s have also reached the semi-finals of their own competition in three of the past four years, and will once again be among the contenders in Lithuania this summer.
McParland, for his part, is hopeful. “I watch all the academy teams, and I really feel there’s a lot of good talent in the country at the moment,” he insists.
“This week we played Tottenham and drew 2-2 in a fantastic game in the snow, and there were three or four players from each side we hope will make it to first-team level.
“I don’t think I could have said that four or five years ago.”