As all attention focuses on the Premier League title race and Champions League, Manchester City could quietly win another significant trophy on Friday. And they could do it in front of around 20,000 Yorkshiremen at Elland Road.
City’s under-23s are at Leeds in the knowledge that a point will see them retain their Premier League 2 title won for the first time last year. It’s not been as high-profile a title charge as last season, but with wholesale changes in the academy over the summer and various injury issues, this would arguably be a better success.
With a six-point gap over West Ham and two games left, City are within touching distance of the most important academy trophy available. Settling for a draw, though, is not their style. They’ll be looking to win and score goals.
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In the summer, popular coach Enzo Maresca left for the first team job at Parma in Italy, and a number of the players who were so key in winning the title last season left the club. Adrian Bernabe, Alpha Dionkou and Felix Nmecha were released, Tommy Doyle, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Claudio Gomes left on loan, while top scorer and PL2 Player of the Year Liam Delap has spent the majority of the campaign out injured.
Former Rochdale manager Brian Barry-Murphy was chosen to lead the Elite Development Squad with the aim of bringing on the many talented youngsters at his disposal. Readying players for the first team is always the priority at City, but the thinking is that trophies will follow if things are being done right.
With Delap’s injury and Cole Palmer being promoted to a first-team player, only dropping down when not needed by Pep Guardiola, Barry-Murphy had to effectively rebuild the U23 squad with the next generation of players coming through. These would be the backbone of the side, with Palmer and Delap supplementing them rather than being regulars.
In their absence, and the injury-enforced lay-off for Sam Edozie, it has been James McAtee who stepped up in style and will surely be at the heart of their title battle at Leeds. Two hat-tricks in his first three PL2 games contributed to ten goals and two assists in the first seven games of the season. That form saw him called up to Pep Guardiola’s first team and therefore less involvement in the first team. In the new year, he has seven goals and four assists in the last nine league games, and is comfortably the Premier League 2 top scorer.
McAtee has been a constant output for City, and only Riyad Mahrez has more goal contributions this season among the first team and academy. Players like Kayky, Oscar Bobb, Romeo Lavia, CJ Egan-Riley and Luke Mbete have excelled as they have jumped between first team and EDS games. A younger generation have kept those players on their toes, supporting the U23s and helping them through a tough run between October and December that resulted in just one win in 11 across league, EFL Trophy and UEFA Youth League games.
That win came in an eventful win against Friday’s opponents Leeds, with Lavia sent off and two late goals from McAtee and Palmer in a 3-2 win. It’s a result they would take at Elland Road, albeit with less drama, with 18,000 tickets sold from home fans. Leeds are not safe from relegation, with their four-point advantage over 13th-placed Chelsea not as stable as it looks. Chelsea have a game in hand and easier-looking fixtures, while Leeds face City and third-placed Arsenal in their last two games.
It will make for a great atmosphere fitting of a title-clincher, and City will be keen to show that audience what they can do while silencing the Leeds crowd looking for an upset. Palmer could return after making his first senior matchday squad since January this week, while Delap, Lavia, Mbete and McAtee have all been involved recently, too, so should be fresh.
When seven academy players featured in the Carabao Cup win over Wycombe in September, not even including Delap or Edozie, a picture of the youngsters savoring the moment on the Etihad pitch went viral. The moniker of ‘Class of ’21’ was born, and in total, 10 academy players have contributed to 32 appearances for the first team, with another four players used on the bench.
Now, that generation could add substance to the growing excitement with a second successive title, sending a clear message to the country that they are the best young players around. Only Manchester United have retained the Premier League 2 since it was introduced in 2012, and with the Under-18s also on course for another title, and the under-17s winning their cup recently, City’s future has never looked brighter.
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