Liverpool kickoff the NextGen Series from Anfield at 19:00 GMT/2:00PM EST
An intriguing experiment begins tomorrow; an under-19 Champions League-style competition with some of the best academies in Europe. And the home-and-away group stage starts out with a bang for Liverpool, as they host what on paper looks set to be their toughest foe of that opening round when Sporting Lisbon comes to town. Molde and Wolfsburg are also in Liverpool's group, with the likes of Ajax, Olympic Marseille, Celtic, Tottenham, and Barcelona potentially waiting in the knock-out stage in January should Liverpool finish in the top two. But for now it's the Lisbon u19s, and it's live from Anfield.
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For those late to the party, the NextGen Series is a 16-club tournament that plans on expanding to 24 for next year's edition, and while it's billed as an u19 competition it does allow clubs to include three overage players in their squad—though in this case, overage only means by one year. As for just how seriously Liverpool plans to take it, well, they were the first club to sign on, and Damien Comolli at least sounds bullish as to its potential value:
As far as I'm concerned, it's a competition that European football was lacking. It is almost a dream come true for every director of football and academy director. I've been hearing about this project for the last 15 years and a lot of people have been trying to set it up. Finally we now have it. When I joined the club last November, Frank McParland was already holding talks with the organisers and when he told me about it, I said straight away, 'We've got to get in it,' because it is very important for Liverpool and it is going to become an important competition in Europe.
The key idea is that it will give young players a chance to face a range of tactical approaches and focuses they wouldn't normally, and at times they may even come up against approaches to the game that are not only uncommon but entirely foreign to players growing up in English academies.
Of course, in recent years under Frank McParland, Rodolfo Borrell, and Pep Segura, Liverpool has sought a return to pass and move football along with teaching the 4231 at all levels of the academy and reserves in an attempt to fashion a footballing identity for the club that runs from the youngest underage players through to the first team and the backroom staff's approach the game. To some extent this will make competing against the more technical continental sides such as Sporting far easier for Liverpool's youth players than, say, Aston Villa when they take on Ajax tomorrow or Manchester City when they take on Barcelona on the 14th of September.
Even for the Liverpool kids, though, it will be on a stage and at a level of competition most of the players wouldn't have had a chance to experience until much later—if ever.
When it comes to tomorrow's competition, as much as Ajax and Barcelona might spring to mind for many when the topic of Europe's top youth academies comes up, Sporting Lisbon deserves to be in the conversation, too. Former and current Manchester United players Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani both came out of their famed Academia Sporting, as did Portugal's most capped player, Luis Figo, with Ronaldo and Figo's Ballon d'Or victories making Sporting the only club whose academy has produced two European Footballers of the Year. As good as Liverpool's academy players have appeared to be over the last year, this will be the first real test to gauge just how close to—or far from—the elite of Europe's youth systems they are right now. Beat Sporting—or at least compete strongly against them—and it will go some way towards confirming just how good this group of players is and could eventually become.
In the end, though, as with any developmental competition, it would be fairly easy to suggest that the results don't really matter if things don't quite work out. As much as we've talked about the youth and reserves around here a fair bit over the last year with the excitement of a revitalized academy stocked full of promising talent, names like Raheem Sterling and Fernando Suso, Adam Morgan and Tony Silva and Andre Wisdom and Conor Coady, not to mention players like John Flanagan and Jack Robisnon who have already worked their way into the fringes of the first team, the games they play are at the end of the day about gaining experience more than they are about winning. And here, too, at the end of the day the biggest thing to take away will be that experience, along with the hope that it helps on the road to Liverpool's potential golden generation eventually coming good and shedding that "potential" tag.
Yet in the same way that winning in the FA Youth Cup is more important than in the developmental and reserve leagues because it secures further competition against generally stronger opposition, winning here is more important than it would be in the FA Youth Cup for the chance it offers to face off with further academy powers from around Europe. Winning means you keep playing, and that could mean a lot down the road according to NextGen Series founder Mark Warburton:
We want to fill a void. Apart from an exceptional few capable of jumping straight into first teams, many promising academy graduates have not been provided with enough consistent high-quality challenges. We think we can avoid wasting talent by helping more young players reach senior level.
The FA Youth Cup aside, English youngsters don't have enough really competitive games; in many reserve fixtures the result isn't all that important. And our competition has educational benefits too; the players will learn a lot from traveling abroad. They'll be out of their comfort zones.
Beyond that, however, it also can't be ignored that with the likes of Sporting, Barcelona, and Ajax, it is a tournament that from day one carries more prestige than any other underage club competition. While it's hardly on par with the actual Champions League, and it seems rather unlikely that any player will finish his career only to look back and boast about a NextGen Series triumph, it's still something more important than what has come before. The chance for Liverpool's revitalized academy to go up against some of the best developmental systems on the continent is hardly something to be sniffed at, and if Liverpool were to manage a successful run it would clearly be a proverbial feather in the cap for McParland, Segura, and Borrell—not to mention for the academy as a whole, which could then present itself as one of the best in Europe with some fairly heavy proof to back up the claim.
It also can't be entirely ignored that for the fans, with Liverpool's senior side out of Europe this season it offers at least an intriguing distraction. Certainly it's not the league. And it's not the FA Cup. It would be damnably difficult even to argue that it was near the level of the diluted League Cup. Still, it isn't nothing: It's midweek football against some of Europe's biggest names, and some of the players Liverpool fans will be hoping to follow at the club for a decade or more will be getting the chance to shine on their biggest stage yet.
*If anybody can confirm coverage from other sources, please leave them in the comments and they'll be added to the list.