Steven Gerrard has had plenty an affair with the Champions League. Scoring in two finals, leading the team out on two separate occasions, including a little one in a town called Istanbul. As the newly appointed manager of the Liverpool U18s, though, he’ll be setting his eye on a different kind of Champions League glory.
While much has been said about who the senior team will play in their qualifying match, Stevie himself will be keeping a close eye on the results as well. If Liverpool advance past that initial qualifier, that would ensure an equal place for the U18s in the UEFA Youth League tournament. There, the U18s will be placed in the same group as their senior counterparts and play home and away in a six match league.
While he won’t be able to play for the first team in the Champions League any longer, this gives Gerrard the chance to really stretch his muscles as a new manager and pass on some invaluable knowledge about the competition. The U18s will play much in the same fashion, with group winners going directly to a round of 16. The second place teams in their group take part in play-offs against the winners of a separate stream of qualifiers involving the youth champions of the 32 top-ranked UEFA associations, unless they already qualify through the Champions League.
The last time the U18s were in the Youth League was 14-15, of course, where they played the likes of Basel, Ludogorets, and Real Madrid - just like their first team counterparts. That team included the likes of Jerome Sinclair and Sergi Canos, both of whom have moved on, but also young upstarts Harry Wilson, Ovie Ejaria, Cameron Brannagan, and Sheyi Ojo - all whom have made first teams since then. While their campaign ended mildly better than the first team’s, just barely losing 2-1 in their last round of 16 to Benfica, the lads will no doubt be raring and ready for another chance at European glory this year.
Former U18s boss Neil Critchley had this to say about playing in Europe: “If these boys are going to play for Liverpool’s first team then it’s a world league. We have to benchmark our players against the best around, not just in this country, because ultimately that is who they will be playing against in the future.”
No better way to do that than to dive right back into the UEFA Youth League.