Under-21 & Youth Team Season Preview – Part Two: The Competitions

Everything you used to know has changed. The landscape for 2012-13 as far as youth development competition goes has changed dramatically, and for the better.

There is no more Premier Academy League. There is no more Premier Reserve League. Instead, Chelsea’s youngsters will take part in Under-18 and Under-21 competition in the new Professional Development League.

In addition to their new domestic schedule, Chelsea will also be taking part in the NextGen Series, and seeking to defend their FA Youth Cup crown. Let’s take a look at each in detail:

Professional Development League (Under-18, Under-21)

As detailed yesterday – link here – the Blues will face six teams home and away in the first half of the season, before completing their fixture list in the new year against another six or seven teams depending on how well they’ve fared in their opening twelve games.

The new competitions rules dictate that the top two teams in each of the three Professional Development League groups (drawn at random) – plus the two best third-placed teams – will qualify for the so-called ‘elite’ group of competition after Christmas.

The remainder of the teams will be split off into two further groups based on accumulated points before embarking upon a second schedule of home and away fixtures.

At the conclusion of the second group round, five teams will have qualified for the post-season championship playoffs. The teams finishing atop groups two and three will square off for the right to meet the team finishing atop the elite group in one Semi Final.

Teams finishing second and third in the elite group play the other Semi Final, leaving two teams to play in the national Under-18 and Under-21 Finals respectively.

The decision to give a playoff place to the ‘lower’ ranked teams after Christmas was taken to ensure that teams still had something tangible to play for in the second half of the season, and takes into account the relative overall strength of teams in the competition.

The format is mirrored across both age groups (as well as at Under-16 level) in order to bring a level of familiarity and structure to the players’ development pathways.

Under-18 fixtures will continue to take place at club training grounds on Saturday mornings, whilst Under-21 matches are scheduled around them between Friday and Monday evenings. Some clubs have arranged their fixture lists to play the same club at both age groups of a weekend for favourable logistical reasons.

Teams have been encouraged to host games at professional stadia – including a minimum of two games at their first team venue – but take-up has been mixed, with some remaining steadfast in their commitment to playing at their training grounds, even behind closed doors in select cases.

NextGen Series (Under-19)

Two years ago, Chelsea took part in a series of trial matches for a European youth team competition. They hosted AC Milan at Cobham (and beat them comprehensively 4-0) and took on Celtic in Glasgow at Parkhead.

The trial was for what became the NextGen Series; founded by Mark Warburton in an attempt to bring Europe’s best youngsters together head-to-head in a similar fashion to the Champions League.

Last season saw the competition launch without Chelsea, but it proved rather successful, with sixteen teams being whittled down to eventual winners Inter, who defeated Ajax on penalties in the Final at Leyton Orient’s Matchroom Stadium.

Year two sees an expansion to 24 teams, with Chelsea one of the eight newcomers. The widened interest in the Series has also resulted in a television deal and the group has taken its media coverage onto the next level in a bid to establish itself.

UEFA are clearly concerned enough to have announced plans to begin its own version beginning 2013-14, with the format mirroring that season’s Champions League campaign, and if they are intent on following through with it, the future of the NextGen Series will come into question.

Yet if year two follows the upward trajectory of 2011-12, it may well be UEFA who have to concede the territory of quality European junior competition.

Most of the biggest names on the continent – Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Arsenal, Ajax, Inter, PSV, Marseille – are all involved, with only Manchester United, Real Madrid and Milan missing of the true elite.

Chelsea have been drawn in Group 3 alongside last year’s runners-up Ajax, Norwegian side Molde, and Russians CSKA Moscow.

Ajax will be the chief threat to the Blues’ hopes of progression into the knockout stages. They were in sensational form last season and possess arguably the best player of the 11-12 season in Danish forward Viktor Fischer.

He finished as the joint-leading goalscorer and tormented Liverpool in the Semi Final, which Ajax won 6-0 at Warrington.

Molde finished bottom of their group last season and were comprehensively beaten by Liverpool and Sporting CP, but will be better for their year of experience and should not be underestimated.

CSKA Moscow, who present themselves as Chelsea’s first opponents on August 28th, are fellow newcomers but have a renowned youth academy which has produced current Russian internationals Igor Akinfeev and Georgi Schennikov.

Age eligibility is restricted to those born on or after January 1st 1994 for the coming season, with three overage players permitted. It means that all of Chelsea’s defending FA Youth Cup winners are eligible to feature, but not the majority of Dermot Drummy’s reserve team squad.

Drummy will however lead the side instead of Adi Viveash, and has a strong pool of players to pick from. As you’ll read in greater depth tomorrow, the Under-21 squad has seen an injection of youth in pre-season with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Lewis Baker, John Swift and others stepping up on a full-time basis, and they’re bound the be the foundation of the NextGen Series team.

Home matches will be played at Staines Town’s Wheatsheaf Park, whilst the away fixtures are at TBC.

FA Youth Cup

The only competition which remains unchanged for the coming season, Chelsea will be seeking to retain their crown, a second in five years. Having been Semi Finalists or better in all but one of those years, they are THE team to beat in the FA Youth Cup and are always a formidable opponent.

There is rarely any doubt at the academy that whilst results often take a back seat to development, the club goes all out to win this one. As defending champions and with an extremely deep squad of talented players, the Blues must be considered favourites once again, at least as much as you can be in a cup knockout format.

Only Jamal Blackman, Todd Kane, Lucas Piazon and Amin Affane will not return from last season, each having passed the upper age limit. Yes, these were four key players in the glories of last April and May, but Adi Viveash has quite the wealth of options available to replace them.

A first-year scholar intake numbering nearly 20 has options in every position, whilst the ascension of schoolboys Jeremie Boga, Charlie Colkett and Connor Hunte provides even more food for thought, with Under-16s able to feature too.

Building on the foundations of a strong centre-back partnership of Nathan Aké and Alex Davey and on a fabulous midfield of Nathaniel Chalobah, John Swift, and Lewis Baker, Viveash’s options are enviable. First-year Ruben Loftus-Cheek is good enough to be a key part of the team, and may well end up playing if rumours of Chalobah departing on loan come to fruition, but it’s a sign of the squad’s exceptional ability that he’s not guaranteed a place. Even top scorer Islam Feruz still has two years of eligibility remaining.

As usual, Chelsea will enter at the Third Round stage with their first fixture likely to take place in mid-December. From there, expect matches every month or so, with home fixtures at Wheatsheaf Park until the Semi Final stage.

Coming tomorrow…previewing Chelsea’s new opponents.

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