European Under 21 Championship: team guide
Telegraph Sport examines the prospects of the nations lining up in Denmark, and highlights the ones to watch.
By Rory Smith
5:15PM BST 11 Jun 2011
Prospects Pierluigi Tami is reaping the rewards of a finely-tuned youth system and has made clear he expects his side to reach the semi-finals at least. With several players who have already featured for Ottmar Hitzfeld’s senior side - notably against England earlier this month - his charges have the calibre to fulfil that ambition.
Star turns It is domestic powerhouses Basel who provide the sparkle to Switzerland’s blossoming golden generation: goalkeeper Yann Sommer, striker Granit Xhaka and, particularly, the supremely-gifted left-winger Xherdan Shaqiri, a Kosovar immigrant who impressed twice against Fabio Capello’s senior side.
What does the future hold? Of all Tami’s bright young things, at 19 Shaqiri seems best-placed to become the standard-bearer for Swiss football, but as many as half a dozen of this side can expect to feature regularly in Europe’s most glamorous leagues for years to come, and few nations will fancy meeting the Swiss in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
Prospects The nagging suspicion is that Belarus have enjoyed their moment in the sun merely by qualifying for Denmark in the most spectacular fashion: overturning a two-goal first-leg deficit to beat Italy 3-0 in Minsk last October. Despite being placed in the easier of the two groups, that is likely to be as good as it gets.
Star turns Belarus are the oldest side in the competition - nine players in their squad are already 23 - but Mikhail Sivakov, of Italian side Cagliari, and BATE Borisov striker Maksim Skavysh, a mere pup at just 21, both possess the talent to cause their opponents trouble. The loss of play-off hero Vladimir Yurchenko was a considerable body blow, though.
What does the future hold? Belarussian players, by and large, do not travel well - Aliaksandr Hleb, once of Arsenal and Barcelona and unhappily of Birmingham, remains the most successful - and that many of Georgi Kondratyev’s side have reached the ages of 22 and 23 without moving to the wealth of the west or Russia suggests their strength is collective, rather than individual.
Prospects Despite possessing the second most porous defence in qualifying, Iceland arrive in Denmark confident of making a significant impact thanks to an impressive forward line. Reaching the stage is the nation’s best-ever performance, but they have the firepower to better that, and a semi-final place is well within their capabilities.
Star turns Gylfi Sigurdsson, a promising but raw midfielder while at Reading, may seem an unlikely candidate to outshine the stars of Spain, England and Switzerland, but he has blossomed since moving to German side Hoffenheim. AZ Alkmaar’s Kolbeinn Sigthorsson has proved himself an adept finisher in the Eredivisie, too, while team-mate Johann Gudmundsson is developing nicely.
What does the future hold? The generation at Eyjolfur Sverrison’s disposal is widely seen as the best the nation has ever produced, but it is hard to see Iceland suddenly becoming a force at senior level. It is unthinkable that Sigurdsson and Sigthorsson, in particular, will remain in comparative backwaters at club level for long, though.
Prospects As hosts, the Danes will be keen to impress, and there is enough talent sprinkled through Keld Bordinggaard’s squad to suggest they can fulfil that ambition. In Christian Eriksen, they have a potential player of the tournament, though the absence of Wolfsburg’s Simon Kjaer — who was refused permission to play – is a blow.
Star turns Much of the attention will be on Eriksen, the Ajax midfielder who so impressed against England’s seniors last season. His performance may have surprised this country, but few in Europe will have been shocked. There are others, though: Villarreal’s Nicki Bille Nielsen is tasked with scoring the goals, defender Mathias Zanka Jorgensen, of FC Copenhagen, with stopping them.
What does the future hold? It would be useful for British fans to learn many of these players’ names now for future use: the likes of Jorgensen seem destined to play in the Premier League sooner rather than later. Eriksen, though, may have slightly grander plans; the midfielder, the heir to Michael Laudrup, seems destined for Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Prospects Stuart Pearce takes his side to Denmark knowing that, despite an unhelpful group draw and even without the absent Jack Wilshere, Micah Richards, Andy Carroll and Kieran Gibbs, he has a side capable of at least matching the achievement of 2009 and reaching the final. Defeat to Spain in the opening game, though, and that ambition will hang by a thread.
Star turns The limelight will fall harshly, glaringly, on Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones, players named in the squad as hopefuls but who landed, belatedly, in Denmark as £32 million of summer signing for England’s two most successful clubs. It is Jack Rodwell, of Everton, who has most to prove, though, and it is Frank Fielding, the Derby goalkeeper, who may cause a surprise.
What does the future hold? Many of Henderson’s and Jones’s team-mates will hope to catch up with their fast-track to success soon; Rodwell, a target for Manchester United and City, and Ipswich’s Connor Wickham may be the first. A good tournament would help a handful of Pearce’s starlets progress into Fabio Capello’s plans for next summer’s senior event, too.
Prospects No international tournament would be complete without Spain in the position of favourites. So keen are the country’s players to associate themselves with international success that Juan Mata and Javi Martínez, both World Cup winners, are both included in a squad which also contains five players schooled at Barcelona.
Star turns It would be all too easy to list all 23 players, but Thiago Alcântara, of Barcelona, Marseille’s César Azpilicueta and Athletic Bilbao’s prodigy Iker Muniain stand out as hopefuls; Mata, the Valencia winger who has been a full international for two years, is probably the most experienced, and classiest, player at the finals.
What does the future hold? Luis Milla’s side have a daunting task: maintaining Spain’s dominance at international level for years to come. With the likes of Xavi, David Villa and Carles Puyol all edging towards the twilight of their careers, places are up for grabs, and it will be in tournaments like this that Martínez, David de Gea, Alvaro Domínguez et al prove they are able replacements.
Prospects Group B has the air of a procession for both England and Spain, given the lofty reputations and multi-million pound valuations of their players, but Ukraine are more than capable of punishing any laxity. A strong, disciplined side, Pavlo Yakovenko’s team are unlikely to be spectacular, but they could spring a surprise.
Star turns The bulk of Ukraine’s players come from, unsurprisingly, Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, the country’s two powerhouses. The latter have supplied the graceful forward Andriy Yarmolenko, but it is two rather more proletarian players from the former who may catch the eye: midfielder Taras Stepanenko and defender Yaroslav Rakitskiy.
What does the future hold? Only one thing dominates Ukraine’s thoughts at the moment: the looming shape of the Euro 2012 finals on home soil next summer. A strong showing and a number of these players could join Yarmolenko and Rakitskiy in the senior side when the continent descends on the Dnieper in 12 months’ time.
Prospects Dealt a cruel hand by the group draw: in Group A, the Czechs might rather have fancied their chances, with their fluent technical style and - for this age group - experienced, high-calibre defence. Alongside Spain, England and Ukraine, though, even their fine form in qualifying may not be enough.
Star turns Their group opponents may boast all of the household names, but the likes of Vaclav Kadlec, the Sparta Prague striker; Marek Suchy, the Spartak Moscow defender, and former Tottenham forward Tomas Pekhart - now reborn at Nuremburg and the leading scorer in qualifying - should not be taken lightly.
What does the future hold? Manager Jakub Dovalil has crafted the Czechs into an organised, effective unit with no little talent, but it is hard to see this crop matching the achievements of Patrik Berger, Jan Koller and Karel Poborsky, who reached the final of Euro 1996. The senior side’s years in the doldrums, though, may soon be at an end.