Featured Photo: David Crawford
Because Celtic returned to the Champions League for the 2022/23 season, the club had an under-19 team enter a youth version of the competition – the UEFA Youth League.
In this article, we will recount the young Hoops’ campaign in the tournament whilst looking at a player or two who stood out for the side along with what learning points there were to be taken. Let’s begin.
The UEFA Youth League runs parallel to the senior competition with under-19 teams facing off against each other in line with the senior teams of their clubs.
For Celtic, it was only the fifth time they’d partook in the competition since its inception and on this occasion, it is fair to say there were many learning curves for them.
The Bhoys managed to get only three points on the board throughout their six games as they came up against three virtuous young sides.
On match day one of the UEFA Youth League, Celtic hosted Real Madrid at Airdrie’s Excelsior Stadium.
The torrential rain, which didn’t let up throughout the match, wasn’t of any aid to the home side and neither was Pol Fortuny’s opener in the seventh minute. Ben McPherson’s sending off four minutes after Youssef made it two seemed to further dishearten the Bhoys who ended up going in at the break 4-0 down. Second-half strikes from Nicolas Paz and Cesar Palacios completed the rout. It is fair to say though, that the way events unfolded in the match didn’t help the Celts.
The Glasgow side would have to put this disheartening defeat out of their minds, as a week later, they would travel to face Shakhtar Donetsk in Warsaw.
The match took place at the Legia training centre and compared to the Real Madrid game; it was a much closer affair. A well-worked team goal saw Shakhtar take the lead through Oleksandr Yushchenko 25 minutes in before a Dylan Corr own goal in the second half doubled the Ukrainian’s advantage. Celtic didn’t go down without a fight, however, as Adam Brooks netted from a fine cross from captain Matthew Anderson to half the deficit with 15 minutes to go. Despite this goal and a late Celtic push, the Hoops came away from the match with nothing and remained on zero points before a doubleheader with RB Leipzig.
The first of said duo was in Germany where Celtic came away with a formidable victory. Rocco Vata, son of Rudi and highly rated at Lennoxtown, opened the scoring in the first minute with a sweetly struck volley from the edge of the box. Tsoanelo Letsosa then made it two with ten minutes played thanks to a powerful shot from just outside the area. Early leads away in Europe are ones Celtic’s senior team have struggled to keep in the past few seasons although here, the youngsters were well disciplined and organised, both in defence and attack. Adam Brooks did miss a penalty in the 23rd minute and when Max Voigt made it 2-1 with just over half an hour to go, it looked as though it would cost Celtic. However, the young Hoops kept their concentration and remained switched on to win admirably and get their first three points on the board.
After defeating RB Leipzig away from home, Celtic hosted ‘Die Rotten Bullen’ in Airdrie. In opposing fashion to the previous tie, it was two early goals from the Germans which set the tone in the opening stages. Striking duo Simon Schierack and Ohene Kohl made it 2-0, 15 minutes in and if it wasn’t hard enough for Celtic to get back into the game after this, Mackenzie Carse’s sending-off just before half-time certainly did. Due to going down to ten, it was tough for the Bhoys to cause Leipzig any issues and salvage something from the game. Although credit has to be given to the fact the Hoops limited the scoreline to 2-0 at full-time despite having a man less.
Two weeks after this defeat Celtic would play their final home game of the 2022/23 UEFA Youth League. Shakhtar Donetsk made the trip to Glasgow and similarly to the previous clash with the Ukrainians, the match was rather tight. A 1-0 Shakhtar win was not reflective of how the game unfolded as Celtic undoubtedly deserved to take something from it. In the first half, the Bhoys dominated, creating several chances yet failing to take any. The most significant of these opportunities came in the 19th minute when Anderson was hauled down in the box. Adam Brooks, who failed to convert from the spot away at Leipzig, did so again, dragging his penalty wide of the post. Vata and Letsosa then went close for the Bhoys although, in the 63rd minute, the sucker punch came as Vladyslav Pohorilyi slid in to score the goal that eventually gave Shakhtar the points.
Due to this loss, similarly to the senior team, Celtic’s youngsters’ tie with Real Madrid in the Spanish capital was meaningless in terms of overall consequence. Nevertheless, the chance to go and face one of the world’s most formidable teams in their own backyard was not to be passed up.
However, within ten minutes, the hosts were 2-0 up at the 6,000-capacity Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. Celtic would get one back in the 16th minute thanks to a well-worked move which saw Adam Brooks rattle in from close range off the bar. Unfortunately for the young Celts Real would go on to win by four goals to one, putting end to a group-stage campaign full of learning curves for a young Celtic side.
Domestically, it is fair to say Celtic’s youngsters have it rather easy compared to when they play on the European stage. For example, in the Lowland League this season, Celtic B have gone undefeated in all but five of their games by a combined scoreline of 74-36 whereas, in the UEFA Youth League, a team of under-19s lost by an aggregate score of 16-4.
This shows that the Youth League was undoubtedly somewhat of a humbling experience for a squad who are predominantly used to having it their own way. This is in no way a bad thing, however, with experiences like this at such tender ages helping to mature and mould young players.
Moreover, playing against some of the top sides in the world for their age group was a great opportunity for the young Celts. Real Madrid are, well, Real Madrid, Leipzig have one of the most modern and up-to-date academies in Europe and Shakhtar continually export a wealth of talent each year, Mykhaylo Mudryk being the latest star to come through the ranks at the club and break into the first team.
As well as competing with the best of their age, the experience of travelling around Europe whilst managing a hugely busy domestic schedule will bode well for any Celtic prospects as this organisation and maturity are expected of them in the senior team.
Moving on from the key takeaways from the UEFA Youth League for Celtic’s U19s, let’s now take a look at a few individuals who caught the eye in the Hoops’ group campaign.
Standouts – Rocco Vata and Adam Brooks
Although Celtic were victorious in just one of their UEFA Youth League games this season, there were still a few players who stood out for a side led by Darren O’Dea and Stephen McManus.
As mentioned previously, Rocco Vata is one of the most highly thought of prospects at Celtic right now and in the Youth League, the 17-year-old was captivating.
Vata had a few sniffs at goal against Real Madrid on match day one despite a 6-0 hammering and around a month later in Leipzig, the Ireland U19s international netted in the opening minute. Vata caught the ball sublimely on the edge of the box after a clearance and volleyed with great technique into the bottom corner. Celtic went on to win 2-1 but would lose their next three matches, scoring just one in the trio. However, said goal was one Vata played a significant part in, playing a line-breaking ball in behind the Real Madrid defence for Ben McPherson who assisted scorer Adam Brooks.
Throughout the Youth League, Vata caught the eye whether he was operating centrally up front, out wide or slightly deeper in an advanced midfield role. The 17-year-old was a bright spark in most of Celtic’s games, bringing vivacity and enthusiasm.
Along with Rocco Vata, Adam Brooks was another one of Celtic’s youngsters who stood out in the UEFA Youth League.
The 18-year-old netted twice in the Hoops’ six games with his strikes coming away at Shakhtar and Real respectively. In Poland, Brooks scored with a cultured, skilful header from inside the box before clinically finishing from a minimal distance in Madrid via the bar. Granted, Brooks did miss two penalties throughout the Youth League although he still impressed nonetheless, being a fox in the box and a continual goal threat for his side.
Rounding off and looking ahead
To sum up, Celtic’s UEFA Youth League campaign was one of many learning curves.
The young Hoops got to go abroad and play some of the top teams of their age group whilst gaining vital experience in juggling a packed fixture schedule.
All of these points, among others, were crucial for the players’ development as they grow older and look to potentially knock on the door of the senior team.
In terms of the Youth League itself, Celtic may well have another crack at it next season should the senior team be triumphant once more in the Scottish Premiership.
At the minute, this looks rather likely therefore it will be intriguing to see what the current crop of under-19s can conjure up next campaign in Europe after already gaining experience of playing together on said stage in 2022/23.
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