Two days after the quarter-final triumph over Real Madrid, Youth Coordinator Dirk Mack travelled to UEFA headquarters in Nyon with a small TSG delegation. It was there that workshops were held to give the semi-final participants the most important organisational information for the final four. "It seemed as if the workshops were only being conducted for our benefit, the other participants looked almost bored," joked Mack. He is, of course, referring to the fact that the other three teams reached the semi-finals last season, while Chelsea and Barcelona – who contested the 2018 final and share the record for most Youth League triumphs (two each) – have made it this far four and three times respectively.
It is a journey into uncharted territory for TSG, who are clear outsiders on paper. "But it's no accident we qualified for the semi-finals," declared coach Marcel Rapp, who was keen to point out that his charges finished top of a tough group including Manchester City, Olympique Lyon and Shakhtar Donetsk before emerging victorious in challenging knockout ties against Dynamo Kiev and Real Madrid.
Pressure off in Nyon
Provided nothing untoward happens, Benjamin Wallquist will lead the team out as captain for the ninth time on Friday. "We recognised the Youth League as a bonus from the beginning and put our focus on the domestic championship. Perhaps that took away some of the pressure," said the Austrian. "After the draw for the group stages was made, nobody probably believed we could reach the semi-finals. Now we're here – and it's not undeserved." Wallquist, who is taking his final exams, missed out on a trip home over the Easter holidays as he was preparing for the final four, but he doesn't mind at all: "Easter happens every year, but the final four of the Youth League doesn't happen too often."
Rapp consistently fielded the same starting XI in the first five matches, but four of the key players in this Youth League campaign will not be available in Nyon: Tobias Heiland (torn cruciate ligament) and Enes Tubluk are out with knee injuries, while Max Geschwill unfortunately broke his metatarsal in training (although he would have missed out through suspension anyway) and U20 player Alfons Amade is still suffering from the back problems that robbed him of the chance to face Real Madrid.
Mixture of Dynamo and Real
"We've prepared well for Porto – but not any better or worse than we did against Dynamo, Heidenheim or Frankfurt," said Rapp, who views the Portuguese outfit as a "mixture of Dynamo and Real". The Dragons are a team that defend very well, play a physically strong game, make few mistakes and aren't averse to hitting a long ball every now and again if they can't find the right solution on the deck.
Wallquist believes that the qualities that have served Hoffenheim so well will continue to do so against the 22-time Portuguese U19 champions. "We've come so far thanks to a good team spirit and a lot of passion and we'll also be as motivated as we possibly can be against Porto," said the 19-year-old. "We're not going to Nyon to have a cool trip. We want to win the semi-final," declared the captain.
The players of all four teams will be put up in the same hotel and will undoubtedly run into each other before and after the matches. "I don't personally know the lads yet, but I have heard of one or two of their names because it has come up in the context of the Champions League or because the player has been hyped up in the national media or over social networks," said Wallquist. "We have a lot of respect for all the teams, but we do not fear them."
TSG the respected underdogs
But Mack believes that respect is a two-way street. "We're well aware that we're mixing it with the big boys, but I think that the other teams have also taken note of our performances and will show us a little bit of respect as well."
There is one point that Rapp, Wallquist and Mack all agree on: however this Youth League campaign ends, it has already been a huge success. It would be a dream come true for everyone involved to participate again. "For that to happen, we need to win the final four. Then, as defending champions, we would qualify for the coming season via the championship path." Can they do it? Well if they have come this far, why not?
Youth League Semi-Finals
TSG 1899 Hoffenheim VS. FC Porto
Friday 26 April, 14:00 CET at Centre sportif de Colovray Nyon
The match will be shown live on Sport1, DAZN and the streaming service airtango.