With the Academy season kicking off on Sunday, here’s a look forward to the 2009/10 campaign. Over the next three days we’ll look at various facets of the year ahead, and we’ll start by looking at Chelsea’s Group A opponents.

The academy league is split regionally into four groups of ten teams. Each team plays 28 fixtures, meaning home and away clashes against the other nine teams in their group, and then five home and five away fixtures against teams from around the country. These are split (although not by home and away) into chunks to start and finish the season. Chelsea’s bread and butter will therefore be the competitive Group A, and it looks like this.

ARSENAL
Last Season: Champions

Last season’s Academy Champions are back and looking for more. With a reputation to uphold, Steve Bould’s team will be looking for a repeat of their total dominance of Group A from last season, and have the players to make it happen. England Under-17 striker Benik Afobe is as prolific as they come, whilst new scholars Daniel Boateng and Chuks Aneke perhaps represent a more physical approach to the team. Foreign signing Sead Hajrovic could add flair to a midfield including the creative Dutch Under-17 captain Oguzhan Ozyakup. They’ll score lots of goals, and win lots of games.

Key Player: Benik Afobe

CHARLTON ATHLETIC
Last Season: 10th

Things didn’t go well for Charlton at any level last season. Relegated from the Championship, their youth team didn’t even give them any cheer, finishing bottom of Group A recording just six wins all season. An academy which was once productive and competitive now appears to be struggling, with recent graduates largely struggling to live up to their potential. Talented centre-back Sean McGinty has already been snared by Manchester United, leaving midfielders Harry Pell and Liam Bellamy to take up the mantle of impressing. Pell is a tall and languid box to box player who is comfortable on the ball. It could be another season of struggle for the Addicks

Key Player: Harry Pell

CRYSTAL PALACE
Last Season: 4th

As the financial crisis has overtaken football, Crystal Palace have managed to remain competitive through the consistent production of first-team ready youth. Victor Moses, Nathaniel Clyne, Lee Hills and Sean Scannell represent the current batch, and that’s without mentioning John Bostock, now of Tottenham. Last season saw another impressive campaign from the Eagles. Kieran Djilali and Ibra Sekajja were a key influence on their fortunes and whilst both may step up to greater things, Jon Williams and Jack Randall are capable of doing very well for themselves.

Key Player: Ibra Sekajja

FULHAM
Last Season: 9th

Despite their lowly finish last year, Fulham are starting to do a lot of things right at academy level. A mix of good local scouting and useful overseas signings has made their team into a hard-working unit at worst, and when they play well they’re a match for anyone. It’s up to Gary Brazil to get that consistency whilst developing the players. Former Chelsea schoolboy Sulaiman Bangura is part of their team, and new striker Richard Peniket is one to watch, but the key man is likely to be Dutch forward Danny Hoesen, who is skilled and can find the back of the net.

Key Player: Danny Hoesen

IPSWICH TOWN
Last Season: 3rd

Ipswich are another club with a strong recent record of player production, and one of their most recent finds could be up there with the best. Striker Connor Wickham scored freely for the youth team last season before making his debut in the first team, becoming the club’s youngest ever player. He’s started this season scoring at the top level, so he won’t be expected to be a part of the academy line-up very often. Tom Eastman leads a good defensive unit, with Ronan Murray and Paul Murphy expected to weigh in with goals.

Key Player: Paul Murphy

NORWICH CITY
Last Season: 2nd

Things are as low as they’ve been in some time for Norwich City. Struggling with relegation to League One and beaten 7-1 at home on the opening day, followed by the sacking of Bryan Gunn, they need a turn in fortunes. Whilst their academy isn’t as prolific as it used to be and the first team squad doesn’t appear to be as open to youth as it has been, the Under-18 team finished a creditable second last season and is capable of pushing on. Striker Patrick Drmola is big, powerful and quick and will be a real handful at this level, whilst defender Sam Habergham has represented England Under-17s. Johnbull Omoregie is one to keep a close eye on.

Key Man: Patrick Drmola

PORTSMOUTH
Last Season: 7th

Whilst Portsmouth’s first team toils due to lack of investment, the opposite can be applied to the youth sector. After two full seasons of Academy status, they’re an established outfit acquiring many players from around Europe. Last season saw French duo Gauthier Mahoto and Gael N’Lunduli impress enough to push into the Reserves, meaning this year’s hopes fall to fellow French import Yann Nsaku and creative Belgian Florent Cuvelier, who has arrived from Mouscron. A cluster of local English youngsters have also been awarded scholarships.

Key Man: Florent Cuvelier

SOUTHAMPTON
Last Season: 6th

Like a good few teams in Group A, the senior side are struggling, and will be forced to turn to youth as they go forward, recent takeover or not in Southampton’s case. With the Saints, they’ve more recently been forced to sell off the likes of David McGoldrick and Andrew Surman, but they remain proof of an academy which is proving to be fruitful and consistently successful. In the current side, Callum McNish provides steel and authority in midfield, whilst Daryl McLean – brother of Peterborough forward Aaron – will be looking to follow in his scoring steps. If Tony Garrod can overcome injuries, he can star.

Key Player: Tony Garrod

WEST HAM UNITED
Last Season: 5th

West Ham continue to do it. Their academy continues to produce players capable of competing in the Premier League, and their youth teams remain competitive on the field, playing good football. Turkish Under-17 goalkeeper Deniz Mehmet is highly rated, as is Oliver Lee (son of Robert), whilst Colombian Cristian Montano is an intriguing prospect. They have a deep squad with experience, and on their day can beat anyone. Especially if England Under-17 forward Robert Hall is on form.

Key Player: Robert Hall

In part two tomorrow, we’ll look at Chelsea’s other ten opponents for 09/10.