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Aston Villa NextGen Series Preview: A Few Key Players

I wrote a shorter version of this for the NextGen Series. I was working under a word count there, though, so I've fleshed it out a bit and put it up here so Aston Villa fans can get some idea of where the team stands heading into the NextGen Series. You'll note it's a bit generic (and for non-Villa fans) at points, but I didn't want to re-write the entire thing.

At the senior level, Aston Villa have been through some tough times lately. The team is currently on their fifth manager in two years and only narrowly avoided relegation to the English Championship last year. For fans of Aston Villa, though, there has seemed to be a light on the horizon. Despite the turmoil in the upper levels of the system, Aston Villa's youth system continues to be unquestionably one of the best in England and possibly Europe as a whole. As if to prove the point, in last year's 16-team NextGen Series, Villa made the quarterfinals - after handily winning their group - where they lost in extra time to Marseilles in a match that they seemed to dominate.

For this season's NextGen Series (now expanded to 24 clubs from across Europe), Villa send a squad that should be solid, but lacks some of the star power that last year's team had. Reserve stand-outs Gary Gardner, Samir Carruthers, and Ebby Nelson-Addy have either moved up or out of the academy. Gardner, in particular, provided much of the punch that Villa used to succeed last year. In their place, however, are a trio of youngsters who look poised to make a significant contribution in the NetGen Series now and with the senior club in the future.

The most exciting of the three is the 16-year-old (side note: good lord) Irish winger Jack Grealish. The youngster had a stunningly good season last year. He scored five goals for the Villa U-18 squad, and featured off the bench for all but one of the team's NextGen matches. Grealish is on the verge of breaking through with the senior club, having been on the bench against Chelsea in March. While he didn't get called upon in that match, it's obvious that he is on everyone's mind. It will be interesting to see if Paul Lambert gives him a selection at all this season, or if he lets him get some seasoning in the youth system.

Another player with a load of promise is 17-year-old English winger Jordan Graham. Despite his role as a midfielder, he was one of the more prolific scorers on Aston Villa's academy team last year, scoring seven times in the Barclay's Premier Academy League. What made the number more impressive was a string of five successive matches in which he scored six of those goals. Of course, we can turn that around and ask "Well, why was he so inconsistent the rest of the season?" It's wise to remember, at this point, that he is 17 and a bit of inconsistency is to be expected. It's just nice to have someone with a scoring instinct in the lower levels of the system, and hopefully he'll learn to have that at all time.

18-year-old forward Graham Burke rounds out the trio of exciting Villains. He, like Grealish, has played at the national level for Ireland's youth system. In 15 outings in the Barclay's Premier Academy League last season, he netted four goals. His most impressive outing, though, came in the NextGen match against Rosenborg in which Burke score 2 goals to help Aston Villa to the 4-1 victory.

With these three as central pieces, look for Aston Villa to advance to the knockout stages of this year's NextGen Series. Play starts on Wednesday at 1900 GMT against Sporting Lisbon. The match will be played at Villa Park.