Eight games played over the last eight months including two knock-out games against Ajax and AS Monaco. Everything was leading up to the trophy that Juvenil crave so much. And then 15 minutes of abysmal football and lapses in concentration happened. That's all it took to eliminate Juvenil from the UEFA Youth League.
We can talk about squad selection, tactics or individual performances/mistakes and blame the result on them, but I think that by doing so we would miss the point of this competition. It's not all about winning the trophy, but it's about developing young players and preparing them for professional football.
These players are, well, kids — and they make mistakes. Sometimes even very silly mistakes that you wouldn't expect from 22-24yrs old players, happen, and that's fine. They need to make those mistake to learn from them. I know it sounds cheesy, but I believe that it's true - “Experience is simply the name we gave our mistakes”.
So let's get back to the game.
Juvenil A starting lineup against Benfica:— Ondra Paul (@OndraPaul) April 21, 2017
Moha; Achraf, Alex, Manu, Fran; Seoane, Valverde, Oscar; Alberto, Dani Gomez, Sergio Diaz.
As you can see, Guti chose a fairly standard lineup. Seoane and Valverde took charge of the midfield, because Guti expected a physical match. And he was spot on. These Benfica kids were very strong in individual battles and they won the majority of duels. Juvenil didn't know how to cope with that and they were visibly rattled.
Individual mistakes from Álex, Moha and Seoane gifted Benfica three goals in the span of 15 minutes. Álex played João Félix onside for the first goal (and Fran failed to cover Félix's run). Then Moha completely forgot how to catch the ball and he let the ball slip through his fingers. I have never seen Moha so down psychologically. You could see the pain and frustration on his face. And to complete the hat-trick of mistakes, Seoane failed to track back players from the second wave, namely João Félix, who scored his second goal of the game.
However, Juvenil never gave up. They improved massively in the last 15 minutes of the first half and even Moha started to show some confidence. And it's not like Juvenil didn't create chances. They did create them and they were good chances. Manu was unmarked in the box after a corner, but he hit Benfica's goalkeeper. Oscar hit the post from a dangerous free kick. And then, finally, Dani Gomez scored in the 28th minute.
Suddenly, it was game on. Juvenil started to come alive and Benfica couldn't manage to get out of their own half. They were pinned down and Juvenil kept probing their defence.
Valverde was simply colossal. He was everywhere, a true todocampista. In one move, he intercepted the ball, dribbled past the opponent and then he played a killer through ball to Dani Gómez / Sergio Díaz. And he did this for the full 90 minutes.
Juvenil started the second half much better and they continued with their good performance from the end of the first half. And in the 55th minute, they were rewarded for their efforts. After few lucky bounces in the box, the ball fell to Seoane and he thankfully didn't miss. 3-2 and 35 minutes were left on the clock.
Guti made two changes - Mink and Toni came on for Oscar and Alberto. Both Mink and Toni added a bit more creativity to Juvenil and they kept creating chance after chance, but their finishing let them down. The biggest chance of the second half fell to Achraf. Seoane delivered an inch perfect cross into the box and Achraf was completely unmarked and he missed.
Benfica were very passive in the second half, so Juvenil gradually committed more and more players forwards and later they paid for it. In the dying minutes of extra time, Benfica scored from a counter attack and definitively sealed their victory.
It's a shame that these kids will not play in the final. Over the course of 90 minutes, they were the better side and probably deserved to go through, but it wasn't meant to be. There is no need to sulk over this result. I'm sure that this experience will give the boys a lot to learn from and they still have two more trophies to win.
Highlights from the game:
"My fear was that we wouldn't react to 0-3, but we began to believe in the comeback and the team showed a lot of maturity. That's something I like a lot. They are not only great players, but they are also mature players. I am proud of them, as always. At half time, I told them that you can win or lose, play better or worse, but if you give everything on the pitch, then you always will be proud of them. They gave their 100% and you cannot ask for more. "
"We had high hopes. We had prepared well for the game and the team was very focused, but 15 minutes of bad football made it impossible for us to reach the final. When we went 3-0 down, the team started to grow. And that's something that is very difficult, especially in these age categories, because it is very difficult for you to get back into the game. We had chances to score the third goal, but football is like that. The best team or the one that played better overall was Real Madrid, but they won the game."
What was the message to your players after the game?
"In the locker room, we didn't talk very much. The disappointment was so great that very little could be said. I wanted to encourage them, to tell them that this is the beginning of what is going to be a great career for them and I want them to learn from it. We are still in two other great competitions and we have the squad and ability to win them. We have to be ambitious and go for them."