With no representation in the Champions League quarter-finals, England could still have three clubs battling it out in the last four of another European tournament.
Having not entered the under-19 NextGen Series in its inaugural season last year, Arsenal are now on the brink a semi-final appearance. They face CSKA Moscow tonight at the Emirates in a one-legged quarter-final, with the winners going on to play Chelsea on Friday. In the other semi-final, Sporting Lisbon face Aston Villa, with the final a week today. Both semi-final’s and the final will be played in Lake Como, Italy.
The tournament’s momentum has been astounding. More than 6,500 tickets have already been sold for tonight’s game and the quality of football so far has been testament to the idea. That idea was to create Champions League players at the youngest possible age, playing in front of bigger crowds against the very best academies in Europe.
Created by TV producer Justin Andrews and Brentford sporting director Mark Warburton, it is no surprise that seven of the 24 clubs invited to play in this year’s tournament were British. But with Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus included this year, among others, the rest of Europe is waking up to the idea. There is still room for the likes of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, but the positives gained from another successful tournament should deal with that.
Terry Burton’s Arsenal dispatched last year’s winners Inter Milan earlier in the month to reach the last eight, but the competition has thrown up all manner of obstacles since their first game nearly seven months ago. They have travelled to Greece, France, Spain and Italy, testing their development against a range of footballing styles. The wonder of the tournament allows these youngsters to adapt their technique to European football, not just the English game.
“They have learnt that you have to be able to adapt,” Burton told Arsenal.com. “They have found that football intelligence is not always about playing the game in a certain way but about being able to adapt to play in a certain way.
“Most of the time we have done that well. The players have come up against some quality teams, and hopefully one of the things they have got out of it has been to learn the different ways that teams can hurt you if you don't do things right.”
These opportunities have not always been put on a plate for English side’s top academy players. The new format has attracted the crowds and the media interest, something younger players never dealt with in the old Premier League reserve league. It is perhaps concerning to some that teenage footballers in this day and age must be taught to adapt to the limelight as early as possible. Nevertheless, with football what it is in 2013, Arsenal stalwarts Abou Diaby and Mikel Arteta agree that a slight dip in the deep end can only be beneficial.
"I would definitely have liked to play in the NextGen Series," Diaby said. "When I was younger we always used to talk about this kind of competition, to play all over Europe against big teams.
"That was a real dream but unfortunately at that time it didn't happen. But I think it is really good for the youth players, it is great experience for them. At a young age they can feel the atmosphere of playing in the European Cup, so that will really help them."
Arteta, now one of most experienced players at the club, believes playing at a stadium like the Emirates is part of the development. Burton’s side usually play their home games at Barnet’s Underhill stadium, but tonight will perform at the 60,000-seater arena they will hope to call home sooner rather than later.
“If they can get a good crowd and people are supportive of the young lads, for them it's going to be a very good experience,” the Spaniard said.
“In a competition like that, they can see how good they are compared to the other teams in Europe. I think it's a very good point to see where they are.
“We've got some good players coming up. I don't want to say any names because you underestimate the others maybe. In my head, there are three or four players that will become very important players for this club."
With talents German Serge Gnabry and London-born Chuba Akpom on their side, the future is bright for Arsenal when looking past the circus of first team inconsistencies.
The pair are a breath of fresh air and have lit up the tournament. They will no doubt soon be featuring in the Champions League to ensure that the absence of British clubs in the latter stages was a one-off. For the spectators of the NextGen Series, being able to say you watched these prospects develop on their first European stage is all part of the attraction.
Arsenal face CSKA Moscow in the NextGen Series quarter-final tonight at the Emirates Stadium, 7pm kick off. Tickets are priced £4 adults and £2 children. Visit www.eticketing.co.uk/arsenal or call 0207 619 5000.