The league season may be over at youth level and the title winners decided, but for Spain’s top Under-18 sides, the hard work has only just begun. For those who are not familiar, the highest youth division in Spain (División de Honor) is split into 7 regional groups, and after the season ends in April, two national competitions are held to determine who are the overall champions of the country.
Later on this month we will see the Copa del Rey, but first up is the Copa de Campeones on Monday, a 5 day knockout tournament that this year will be hosted in Vigo. As the name suggests, only the seven regional champions get to take part, as well as the best runner-up to make up the numbers. Unlike the Copa del Rey, games are one off instead of being played over two legs, and they are also televised live by MarcaTV to give extra significance. The current champions are Sevilla, who overcame Espanyol in last year’s final with a 1-0 win.
Barcelona celebrate winning the Copa de Campeones in 2011
They are back this year to defend their title as Group IV winners, as well as 2011 winners Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo, Real Madrid, Villarreal, Las Palmas and Atlético Madrid, who despite finishing second in Group V qualified as best runner-up across the 7 divisions. The action kicks-off early on Bank Holiday Monday, Barca first up against Las Palmas. The winner will take on Sevilla or Athletic in the semi’s, who play at lunchtime, with the other to be between the winners of the later games, Atletico vs. Villarreal and Celta vs. Real Madrid. They will all be played at the Madroa complex, Celta’s training ground and home of their Juvenil A side, before moving to the first team’s Los Balaídos stadium for the semi-final and final.
Below, we take a look at the 8 sides bidding to win the competition, and also some of the players who will hoping to follow in the footsteps of the countless number of star names to have played in previous versions of the competition.
The home side and runaway winners of Group I, Celta are without doubt one of the favourites for the tournament. Their main obstacle will be the fact they have been drawn against a very strong Real Madrid side, but they are full of attacking talent themselves, as shown by the fact they scored 102 goals in their 30 league matches. The main news is that they will have the predatory Santi Mina available, who has been on fire for Celta B lately. Having started the season with Juvenil A, 17 year-old Mina hit an incredible 27 goals in 17 matches, earning him promotion to the reserves as well as a first team debut against Getafe in La Liga. However, he is now back and ready to help out the youth side, who still managed to storm to the title without their main man.
Ones to watch: Santi Mina, Yelko Pino, Jordan, Borja Fernández, David Goldar
Always strong at youth level, Athletic are back in the Copa de Campeones with yet another promising generation of players, and be hoping to make it to the final for the first ever time in Vigo. They are most likely to be the youngest team involved with the majority of their team born in either 1995 or 1996 (the age limit is 1.1.1994), as historically, players are promoted to their Tercera division side, CD Baskonia, early on to try and ready them for the step up. Top scorer Iñaki Williams is one to definitely keep an eye on, Ghanaian born, he has been dubbed ‘the Basque Balotelli’, and hit 31 goals in 30 games in the league this year. With their selection policy, you can bet a number of the players on show will find their way to the first team in the future.
Ones to watch: Iñaki Williams, Alejandro Remiro, Unai López, Jurgi Oteo, Yanis
Red-hot: Celta Vigo striker Santi Mina
Last year they competed as runners-up after losing out to a brilliant Espanyol side, but blitzed the competition this year, finishing 22 points clear of their local rivals at the top. Like Athletic, they have also been playing the NextGenSeries throughout the season, and also lost top scorer Sandro Ramírez to serious injury, but it didn’t stop them as they took 81 points from a possible 90. Having been drawn against Las Palmas, they are up there with the favourites to regain the title they won two years ago. As you would expect, they play with the exact same style you see from the first team every week, and many of their players will progress to Barcelona B in the coming years, with the likes of Sergi Samper and Adama already beginning the make the breakthrough.
Ones to watch: Sergi Samper, Adama Traore, Xavi Quintilla, Ebwelle, David Babunski
The reigning champions, Sevilla saw off fierce competition from Málaga and Almería to win the Andalusian group and qualify for the chance to defend their title. Most of last year’s side are now well established in their B and C outfits, but the current Juvenil A crop are arguably just as good, with plenty of Spanish youth internationals in the ranks. Although they have earned a reputation lately for producing attacking talent (mainly wingers), this team is built on a solid defence, and as shown by their record of just one defeat all season, a setup that makes them very difficult to beat. They are without Antonio Cotan, but do have 1996 born midfielder Fran “Curro” Sánchez, a Spain U17 international who has already played good minutes on Segunda B for their reseve side.
Ones to watch: Curro Sánchez, Juanje, Beto, Carlos Fernández, Modesto
Real Madrid’s excellent Juvenil A side
For me the strongest team in the competition man-for-man, Real Madrid stormed to the title in Group V and for me are the team to beat. With 83 points, they were statistically the best team of all those involved this season based on league performance, and will be further strengthened by the additions of Álvaro Medran and in particular the fit-again Raúl de Tomas, both third division regulars for their C-team. Also, with four Spain U19 internationals, including goalkeeper Alfonso Herrero, in their backline, they are tough to break down, and are also filled with attacking creativity, hitting 101 goals in their league campaign. The club has worked hard to bring in quality players at youth level and this Juvenil A side has been labelled their strongest in years, so fingers crossed we will see some of them running out at the Bernabéu one day.
Ones to watch: Raúl de Tomas, Cristian Benavente, Ivan Saez, Álvaro Medran, Marcos Legaz
Runners-up in Grupo V, last year Atlético were champions with the wonderful Óliver Torres in midfield, despite going on to underperform in the cup competitions. However, this year they managed the same amount of points and qualified on that basis. They have a lot of strength in their cantera, as seen by them providing 9 of the Madrid region’s squad that won Spain’s Under-18 territorial championships last weekend. Captain Borja Martínez is the undoubted star, although they also have Samuel Villa, who started recently in a first team friendly, and have drafted in promising centre-backs Fallou Gallas and Lucas Hernández (1996 born), to cover the untimely injury of defensive talisman Aitor Ruano.
Ones to watch: Borja Martínez, Jony, Samuel Villa, Chele, Ivan Alejo
Atlético Madrid qualify as best runner-up across the 7 groups
Las Palmas will naturally be seen as outsiders as they are from the less competitive Canarias division, but they won Group VI convincingly and have proven down the years as regular representatives from their group that they can compete with Spain’s best. Known for producing creative players, their cantera has always had thriving success as a club who rely heavily on their youth set-up. Unfortunately, they will have to overcome the strength of Barcelona if they want to progress, but shouldn’t be written off still. Another team who are strong defensively, they finished comfortably ahead of runners-up Tenerife and only lost once all season. I’ll admit I know very little about their team, but from research have found there are a number of interesting players in their ranks, and other we will likely see for the first time in the Copa.
Ones to watch: Benito, Hector Hernández, Matias, Dani Ojeda, Stephane
They only just made it here having edged Levante on head-to-head record after finishing level on 72 points, but Villarreal, despite no longer having a top division first team, are a team known for their academy, and have great strength and depth throughout their youth ranks. From what I’ve seen, their most promising canteranos are not at this level yet, but they still have a very strong Juvenil A side and despite tailing off following a sublime start, will probably be slight favourites in their tie against Atlético. With former player Nihat Kahveci assistant to manager Eder Sarabia, we can fully expect the free-flowing attacking football that is a trademark of the Yellow Submarine.
Ones to watch: Pablo Larrea, Álvaro Fernández, Javi García, Alberto, Nahuel Leiva
Monday 6th May
10.30 – Las Palmas vs. Barcelona
13.00 – Athletic vs. Sevilla
16.00 – Atlético vs. Villarreal
18.30 – Celta vs. Real Madrid
Thursday 9th May
12.00 – Las Palmas/Barcelona vs. Athletic/Sevilla
17.00 – Atlético/Villarreal vs. Celta/Real Madrid
Saturday 11th May