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With the U-21 Euros upon us, Josh Lawless has a look at 10 players who are most likely to catch the eye.
The U-21 Euros is one of the most enjoyable tournaments around. It serves as the primary platform for the finest, most promising youngsters in Europe to showcase their talents on a grander stage.
In each edition, we see a crop of players who make a huge impression and really kickstart their careers in the game. The list of players to have won the tournament is packed with stars and players who have risen to the forefront of European football. This year’s tournament will likely continue the trend and there are a plethora of players well worth keeping an eye on.
It’s been a strange career for Sweden’s John Guidetti. Once tipped to follow in the footsteps of legends such as Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Swedish striking department, things haven’t quite gone to plan. After an exceptional campaign in Holland on loan at Feyenoord in which he hit 20 goals, Guidetti suffered a bizarre, yet fatal virus after allegedly eating an infected piece of chicken which would then stunt his progress seriously. Many Manchester City fans believed he could make the step up to the first team, but an utterly pointless loan spell at Stoke did him no favours and he was shipped out to Celtic on loan where he bagged a commendable 15 goals, but was subsequently released by City. A real livewire and a usually prolific player when given the chance, this is an opportunity for the 23-year old to really shine and put himself in the shop window.
Serbia coach Mladen Dodic was close to naming a very strong squad for the tournament that would have included Liverpool’s Lazar Markovic, Schalke’s Matija Nastasic and Anderlecht’s Aleksandar Mitrovic, but it was thought their Euro 2016 duties were more important and so they have been left out of the squad. Still, along with Dortmund’s Milos Jojic, Filip Djuricic is a polished player on his day but has struggled for consistency over the last couple of years. He spent the first half of the 2014/15 season on loan at Mainz from Benfica and then got a taste of Premier League football with Southampton, where he made just three starts for Ronald Koeman’s men after joining in February. He is talented though and has the skillset to excel in an attacking midfield role but can’t seem to catch a break. An impressive tournament here could put him in new Benfica boss Rui Vitoria’s plans for next season.
A new face in the camp for England is Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Previously an U-19 regular, Loftus-Cheek came into his own in the latter stages of the season and was rewarded by Jose Mourinho with valuable starts against Liverpool and West Brom, where he exuded composure and oozed class. A former FA Youth Cup winning captain, he boasts a tall frame and is competent aerially while being extremely gifted on the ball, confident and crisp with his passing – achieving a 100% pass accuracy in his first Premier League start. Though Jose Mourinho has publicly questioned his attitude and application, the youngster has the potential to go far in the game and some involvement in the European Championships could prove to be the springboard for future success. One to keep an eye on.
Germany are the leading suppliers of talent in Europe at the moment and they maintain a similar level with their next batch of prospects. The Germans are serious contenders for the competition and will be spurred on by a rich pool of attacking talent that includes the likes of Max Meyer, Leonardo Bittencourt and Max Arnold. However, their main source of attacking prowess is Hoffenheim’s Kevin Volland; a versatile forward who is almost destined for big things. Hoffenheim finished in 8th position, two points behind Borussia Dortmund and would not have finished so strongly had it not been for Volland’s form and deadly combination with Roberto Firmino. Volland hit 10 goals in all competitions and racked up 5 assists which may not be exceptional on the face of things, but that is a decent tally for a player who primarily comes in off the right flank. Possessing a wonderful left-foot and packed with talent on the ball, he will be key for Germany.
Aside from the attacking talent on show, there will of course be a fair spread of defensive diamonds in this tournament and one I am very much excited about is Italy’s Alessio Romagnoli. The 20-year old spent last season on loan at Sampdoria and helped La Samp finish in a highly commendable seventh position. In fact, he is the club’s second best performer last season according to Squawka. He had already been trusted by Rudi Garcia at Roma in 13/14 but a fruitful loan spell should aid his development greatly and push him into a more prominent role in the Giallorossi. He is capable of filling in at both left-back and centre-back and is a very measured player, playing his game with a calmness and a cool head. Extremely comfortable on the ball and at bringing the ball out from the back, he also possesses a great deal of athleticism in terms of speed and strength. He has all the traits to thrive at centre-back and I suspect we will see evidence of that in the U-21 Euros.
Denmark feature in the tournament’s opening game and will go into the tournament with plenty of confidence after hitting a staggering 37 goals in qualifying; the highest total of all the teams. They will be boosted by the recent return of Ajax prodigy Viktor Fischer. The winger has had his progress disrupted massively over the last year or so, having been sidelined for 14 months due to injury. He made his return in April and is the attacking talisman the Danes will turn to in the tournament. A left-sided player, he has joined up with the U-21 squad having recently been on senior duty in Euro 2016 qualifying commitments. Ajax have a thick production line and this player could be the newest sensation to join the list, with incredible dribbling ability and a deft touch in the final third. Expect him to light up the Czech Republic.
Although only 19, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has accomplished a fair bit in the game so far and like Fischer will be one of Denmark’s key men in this tournament. The recent 2014/15 campaign has been a fruitful one as he was trusted by Guardiola in the first half of the season on occasion and played 3 times in the Champions League, two of which he played the full duration in games against Manchester City and CSKA Moscow. He was then sent on loan to Augsburg for the remainder of the campaign and blossomed, helping the club reach a mightily impressive 5th position. A very successful loan spell means he will likely be fully integrated into the Bayern side next season. A wonderfully well-rounded, combative yet technically proficient central player, he has an immense range of passing and is a willing runner from midfield. He recently played the entirety of Denmark’s Euro 2016 qualifier with Serbia ahead of this tournament. Keep an eye out because this player is sure to have a big future.
Perhaps an odd shout as the 22-year old is not an unknown quantity by any stretch, but it is refreshing to see him as part of the Germany U-21 squad despite a glorious, treble-winning season at Barcelona. The German has had his appearances limited to cup competitions, with Claudio Bravo the chosen man between the sticks in the league. That has not necessarily been a bad thing for ter Stegen though as he has raised his game and looked more than competent in any instance, in the Champions League especially. An excellent shot-stopper, he commands his area admirably and has developed a real talent for playing the ball out from the back and starting attacks. Many have tipped him as the natural successor to Manuel Neuer in the German senior side and it will be a pleasure to watch him in the Czech Republic. The backbone of the German side.
England have one of their most impressive defences this time around with the likes of Calum Chambers and Carl Jenkinson in the fold. Another player who has had a taste of senior international football is John Stones of Everton, who I believe is England’s most polished defensive prospect around at the moment. Stones plays with great maturity for someone still only 20 and was one of the shining lights in a fairly forgettable season for Roberto Martinez’s side. He is a superb reader of the game and is equally as good in the air as he is on the floor. A real defensive gem, whether partnered with Leicester’s Liam Moore, Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson on Burnley’s Michael Keane – any defensive unit with Stones in it has some degree of strength. A great tournament here will surely see him become a permanent fixture in the senior side.
My standout prospect to watch over the course of the next couple of weeks has to be Domenico Berardi. He is one of the most exciting talents Italy has to offer at the moment and boasts an outstanding striking rate over the last couple of seasons in Serie A. In 2013/14, he bagged 16 goals in 29 appearances for Sassuolo; an average of 136.4 minutes per goal – quite comfortably beating the other U-21 talents in Europe. During the 2014/15 campaign, in a fairly average Sassuolo side which finished 12th, he continued his goalscoring exploits; this time bagging 15 goals in 32 games. But strikingly, he contributed further with a highly creditable 10 assists, placing him at the pinnacle of the assist charts along with Marek Hamsik, Franco Vasquez, Paulo Dybala and Miralem Pjanic – who all achieved the same sum. In terms of his playing style, he is a nifty, positive player with expert movement and a knack for scoring all types of goals. He can play wide but is at his most lethal in central areas. He is the complete forward and has the potential to gun Gli Azzurri to glory in this competition.
Head this way for more reading on the U21 European Championship.
Written by Josh Lawless