Hello and welcome back to the final episode of this challenge, the challenge to win the Champions League with a team of only U21 players. In the first four seasons our Benfica team have managed to reach the quarter-final twice, but it had never felt particularly close to us lifting the trophy. We simply haven’t been good enough compared to the biggest teams in Europe. This season however, Benfica and manager Ronaldo make one final push for the title with the best squad yet!
In the previous seasons the two oldest age groups, players aged 20 and 21 have made up the first squad, playing the Big games and challenging for trophies, while the younger players were put in the B and U19 squads with a single focus on individual player development.
Going into the fifth and final season manager Ronaldo scrapped the idea of creating the squad based on age groups and simply selected the 22 best players regardless of age (all under 21 of course) in an attempt to create the best squad so far.
This resulted in a squad spanning four age groups, with the backbone of our squad mainly consisting of players born in 2001. Six players are born in 2001, four in 2002, nine in 2003 and the youngest three in 2004. The squad really has an international feel to it with only two Portuguese players. The rest of them are a mix of Europe and South America. Four players are from France, three from Brazil, two from Argentina, England, and the Netherlands and one from Germany, Croatia, Spain, USA, Paraguay, Belgium and Mexico. The biggest star of the lot is unquestionably Croatian world-beater and Inverted Attacker Extraordinaire Antonio Marin who sadly will only spend the first half of the season with us. After that the loan back to us that was arranged as part of his transfer to Inter Milan is up and he’ll leave for Italy.
This is one exciting squad and obviously our best one yet. The feeling is that we might still not be good enough though, since the top teams of Europe are filled with world class players. We might have the world’s most talented team, but very few of the players have a current ability to match the best. In the last post I gave us a 20% chance to win the Champions League in our final season, which indicates that it’s not an impossible task, but we’ll need a lot of luck along the way.
So, let’s see how we actually did!
We kept the dream alive, but it was a close call. Beforehand it didn’t look like the toughest group ever, but after a couple of lack-lustre performances from us the adventure almost ended before it really started. Going into the final game of the group stage we were parked in third place on 8 pts with Bilbao and Leipzig ahead of us, both on 10 points. A win for us against Dynamo Kyiv would see us go through, no matter what the result would be in the Bilbao-Leipzig game, but a failure to win would send us packing. We did exactly what was needed though and a quite comfortable win against Kyiv saw us walk away with a 2nd place finish in the group.
Missing out on the 1st place meant that the 1st knockout round draw was gonna be a tough one. There were no “easy teams” among the group winners, but we really got one of the tougher ones.
1st Knockout rd vs Barcelona
So, before we get into the actual games, let’s examine what sort of state FC Barcelona are in the 2022/23 season compared to the 2018/19 season? It’s a bit of old and a bit of new for Barcelona. Messi at age 35 is still probably the best player in the world (even though he is starting to decline physically) keeping Luis Suarez on the bench. Both wingers are new and lethal in Leon Bailey and Cengiz Ünder and half the back four are new compared to the 2018/19 version of the team. They won the Spanish La Liga last season after two years of disappointing 3rd and 4th place finishes.
Obviously one of the toughest opponents out there and we were most likely forced to produce some of our best football ever to give us a chance to advance to the quarter-final.
The first leg at home was an even affair. Barcelona scored the first goal, but we managed to get that important equalizer through Tiago Aguiar 10 minutes before full time. A similar performance away would at least give us the chance to go through to the next round, even though Barcelona were massive favourites. After 15 starting minutes of pure Barcelona dominance the second leg, just like the first, turned into a tight game between two good teams. In the 25th minute we took the lead and we never let go. When the referee blew the final whistle we had done ourselves really proud by knocking out one of Europe’s true greats! Perhaps this team was even better than I had thought!?
Quarter final vs Atletico Madrid
We got another Spanish team in the quarter final draw in Atletico Madrid. This felt like a slightly easier opponent than Barcelona, but the fact is that in the last couple of years the historical superior Spanish duo of Barca and Real Madrid has turned into a superior trio. Atletico has ten consecutive top 3 finishes in La Liga since 2012/13 and they won the league two seasons ago. Compared to the 2018/19 squad they have kept a core of top quality players such as Oblak, Rodri and Griezmann and have added a couple of solid pieces in Hamsik and Nastasic.
Not a bad team, but the feeling was that if we could knock out Barcelona, we could certainly knock out the white-and-red striped Madrid side as well! After a solid home leg where no1 striker John Udeh lead the way with the first goal of the game things were looking pretty bright for us getting past the quarter final for the first time. Another two Udeh goals in the away leg played a major part in the final 3-3 score which means that we had managed to pass our previous best result and we were through to the semi final!
The phrase “anything can happen” is truly a cliché, but after reaching the semi final we’re at least closer to the Champions League trophy than we’ve ever been. However, we suffered a major blow going into the semi final as 1st choice striker and goal scoring leader John Udeh suffered pulled ankle ligaments and will miss both games.
Roy Bridges is a good back-up, but we’ll certainly miss the excellent display of form from John Udeh’s latest games. Hopefully Bridges will step up to the plate, because no matter what opposition we’ll face in the semi final there are only real quality teams left.
Semi final vs Manchester United
We face a Man Utd team that has finished 2-3-3 in the last three Champions League seasons. It’s a tough opponent but the feeling is that they’re not absolutely top class. A central midfield consisting of Pogba and Van de Beek will make anyone drool, but the rest of the team doesn’t look out of this world. However, with three consecutive finishes as runner-up in the Premier League they are a solid British force. They also lifted the Champions league trophy in 2019/20 and must be seen as favourites going into the games.
We lost the first leg 1-3 in a pretty disappointing performance. We looked like the better team, but we just couldn’t threaten de Gea enough. It’s tough to win games with a measly 2 out of 17 shots on goal, especially away to Man Utd. The away goal is the only thing that keeps my hopes of a final alive.
Do you remember me writing about Roy Bridges having to step up to the plate? An early brace from the man himself in the second leg meant that we were in the driver’s seat all of a sudden.
We kept controlling the rest of the game and Man Utd really didn’t stand a chance. I’m both delighted and surprised at how dominant we were.
The away goal came in handy as we won the 2nd leg 2-0, giving us an aggregate result of 3-3.
After an amazing run of results and a little bit of luck we’re through to the Champions League final. Like a well-scripted Hollywood movie it all boils down to one game.
In the other semi final power-house and 2018/19 Champions League winners Man City managed to beat power-house and 2020/21 Champions League winners PSG on extra time with Phil Foden scoring the winning goal. We are through to the final where we’ll most likely face our toughest opponent. Let’s start by looking at what we’re actually up against!
Wow, this certainly looks like a tough cookie! Compared to the 2018/19 version of the team Man City have kept three out of the back four, only adding our former player Josha Vagnoman. Offensively Olmo, Alli and Milinkovic-Savic are all top quality signings to add to “original trio” De Bruyne, Sterling and Gabriel Jesus. To make matters worse, the day before the final I notice that we are missing goalkeeper Vandevoort, defender Van de Berg and striker Bridges who are all away on international duty strangely enough. What the actual f***? Who schedules an international break that clashes with the Champions League final? To make matters worse newly recovered John Udeh suffers another injury, making him unable to play in the final.
I’m about to throw my computer out the window when curiosity stops me. If I’m missing players, perhaps Man City are too? And in a single mouse-click my bad mood turns into both happiness and amazement!
We are missing four players. Three away on international duty and the injured John Udeh. Man City on the other hand are missing 13 players! Nine are away on international duty, three are injured and poor Presnel Kimpembe is not even registered for the Champions League squad. Six out of the starting eleven are missing for them, while we really only struggle at the striker position. With both Udeh and Bridges out we’re needed to call upon B squad striker Fabián Guevara to play the most important game of his life.
With these strange circumstances taken into account it feels like we actually go into the final as slight favourites. If we are ever to win the Champions League, this is our chance!
I was nervous to say the least as we approached the final.
I live reported the game on Twitter chat for a couple of friends as the clock closed in on midnight. It was a warm night, so I skipped the full suit and went with a jacket and shorts. The only red tie to match the Benfica colours was a Christmas one, but a final is a final.
The final itself then? I wish I could tell you that it was like watching an episode of Game of Thrones, exciting, intriguing and mind-blowing. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t. It didn’t even come close. I watched the game in full like I always do with important games and this won’t go down in history as one of the better finals. It would be fairer to call it one of the most boring finals ever. However, we won it. WE F***ING WON IT! I was so excited when I saw the team celebrating after the game!
The feeling following the joy of winning and completing the challenge was emptiness. What now? I’m really proud that I managed to win the Champions League with a team of kids, but at the same time I’m a person that always looks forward. Perhaps this is actually the end of the series or I’ll come back with another post highlighting the players in the winning team. Or I’ll re-invent the series in one way or another.
Either way, now it’s time for a couple of weeks of (FM free) summer holiday. I hope you enjoyed the series. I’ll see you when I see you!
Thanks for reading another excellent post by Mikaelinho. You can follow him on Twitter here:
- Twitter: @mikaelinhofm