Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Your friendly neighborhood UEFA NextGen report

The fat lady has yet to sing, but it's all but over, or just plain over, in three of the four groups in this year's NextGen Series. From the top ...

Celtic needed a serious dose of luck to keep their European adventure going. A group-dominating giant had to be slain by a relative minnow twice. They also had to beat Barcelona in Barcelona. All daunting enough on its own, but five minutes in, goals from Patri Gabarron and Dongou made Celtic's long shot that much longer. It didn't get any better for the Bhoys until Tony Watt's 75th minute goal. By then however, Dongou had completed his hat trick and become the competition's top scorer (7), Barcelona had secured their spot atop Group 1, and Celtic's hopes for this year's NextGen Series had been completely and utterly squashed.

Even if Celtic had made it matter, things had not gone their way back in Manchester. There Marseille gave Manchester City another tough loss. It took the visitors a while to get into the game, but City failed to make them pay for their lethargic start. Instead, it was Marseille's Thomas Savino who buried a free kick rebound to give his side the game's first goal. City equalized before the break as Jordy Hiwula finished off a counter that saw his already-eliminated team go into the half tied with the only team to have beaten Barcelona in the competition. And so it remained until Brice Bonelli dribbled around City keeper, Tom Halsall, and put his team into the quarters.

Looking to clinch a spot in the quarters themselves, Aston Villa needed only a point against Ajax to do just that. They got three. Three points, three goals, all from one man: Gary Gardner. Three days later, he was loaned out to Coventry, where he is expected to see first team minutes. There were also three yellow cards awarded in the game. Ajax had the better of play leading up to Gardner's opener, but a critical turnover in the visitor's defensive third saw the Villa captain clinically head home from eight yards out. After Daniel Johnson was hacked down 25 yards out, it was Gardner again, this time off a deflected free kick, that put Villa up 2-0. Half an hour later Gardner completed his hat trick with a fine solo effort, winning the ball in midfield before ultimately slotting past Mickey Van der Hart for his third and final NextGen tally.

Gardner continued his fine form as he went on to score in his debut for Coventry. He got the game's opening goal in a 2-1 loss away to Brighton.

The Ajax loss in Birmingham had eliminated Rosenborg from contention. As such, Ajax were hosting a team with nothing to play for as they sought out a group-clinching victory. By the same token, the visitors had nothing to lose either and it showed as The Troll Kids sentenced Ajax to second place with a goal each from Robin Bjornholm and Ole Gunnar Oien.

Barring Marseille making up a seven-goal differential deficit on Barcelona in their dead rubber against Celtic, Ajax will now face Barcelona in the quarterfinals. Villa would face Marseille.

In Group 4, Tottenham looked to strengthen their position atop the table as they played host to caged animals Basel. The visitors were all but fighting for their tournament lives while Tottenham were after a spot in the quarters. An end-to-end encounter ensued, but Tottenham took the game's only goal through former Basel center back Milos Veljikovic heading in a free kick cross.

As it stands, Basel must hope that Inter take no more than one point from their remaining three fixtures. The two sides play with Basel listed as hosts at a time and place still to be determined. Should Spurs take a point home from their visit to Inter next week, they will clinch the top spot in Group 4 and quarterfinal duel with Liverpool .

None of the quarterfinal match-ups are technically set in stone yet, but at this rate we can expect to see the following:

Barcelona vs. Ajax
Aston Villa vs. Marseille
Tottenham vs. Liverpool
Sporting Lisbon vs. Inter Milan/Basel

- Jacob Klinger

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