Speaking at an "important milestone" in the UEFA Youth League's nascent history, the draw for the knockout phase in Nyon, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino outlined the opportunities the competition is affording players and coaches and how well-received it has been so far.
"I am personally very pleased, as our two-year trial is proving to be very successful, from a sporting as well as an educational perspective," said Mr Infantino of the Under-19 tournament, which started in September with ringing endorsements from the likes of Arsène Wenger, Jorge Jesus, Neil Lennon and Manuel Pellegrini.
Thirty-two teams participated in the group stage, which finished last week, with the same composition and a similar calendar to the UEFA Champions League. As well as being an environment in which players can flourish as they take on the best of their continental peers, the UEFA Youth League is also intended to help ready them for life in the senior ranks.
"Altogether, we have provided our young players, coaches and referees with a unique opportunity to test their skills at a very high international level, to compete with and learn from each other, and to identify areas they should work on to improve," continued Mr Infantino. "This brand-new competition is designed to bridge the gap between youth and first-team football, and we are already seeing players making the transition from UEFA Youth League to UEFA Champions League."
Some of the men in the dugout are making the opposite journey, with Filippo Inzaghi (AC Milan), Nicky Butt (Manchester United FC) and Patrick Vieira (Manchester City FC) – all of whom graced the UEFA Champions League during stellar playing careers – cutting their coaching teeth in the competition.
"We expect that the big names of the coming years will appreciate the opportunity given to them by UEFA to glean crucial experience on their career paths," explained Mr Infantino. "This has also been the message we have received from club ambassadors such as Filippo Inzaghi and Fernando Morientes, who have supported the initiative because of the additional possibilities it brings, not only from a playing perspective but also from a coaching perspective."
Following the group stage, the tournament's inaugural edition will continue to go from strength to strength as the focus shifts to February and the last-16 ties. "With a different competition format in place for the knockout stage – the teams playing single-leg matches in the round of 16 and quarter-finals – the UEFA Youth League will come into its own this spring," said Mr Infantino.
The semi-finals and final, meanwhile, will be played as part of a four-team tournament at the Colovray Stadium opposite UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, on 11 and 14 April.
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