With domestic football stepping aside for a well-earned break, the world cup qualifiers aren’t the only international games to look forward to this week.
Every two years, the UEFA U-21 European Championships provides a platform for some of the most exciting young talents in world football, and despite the unique format, this year is no exception.
Staged in eight cities across host nations Hungary and Slovenia (four cities in each country), the tournament will feature an array of rising talent from 16 of Europe’s most prominent nations.
The group stages and knockout stages will be held separately, with the 16 teams split into four groups, taking place from the 24th of March to the 31st March. Both group winners and runners-up will advance into the knockout phase running from the 31st of May through to June 6th.
Holders Spain will hope to emulate their success of 2019, although with key players progressing to the first squad for World Cup qualifiers, they may struggle to fend off the challenge of France and England, who both hold staggeringly strong squads.
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Teams to look out for
Following a humiliating exit from the 2019 competition in the group stages, Aidy Boothroyd will be hoping his new crop of talented young stars will show what they are capable of this time around.
With a squad containing the likes of Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, it was no surprise to see the unrest the exit caused two years ago.
Still, the squad will be arriving with high hopes of challenging this year, and with the level of talent Boothroyd has at his disposal once again, it’s understandable.
One of England’s strongest assets is the versatility of a number of their players. While a number of formations and setups could be used, the defence should be as stable as ever. Young full back Max Aarons will likely continue to star on the right, with Everton’s Ben Godfrey a reliable choice in the centre.
Dependant on the system Boothroyd and his staff opt for, will obviously alter his plans for what players will be used in midfield. Curtis Jones has shown bundles of promise and been a positive in Liverpool’s poor season, while Eberechi Eze has portrayed glimpses of his creative ability in his first season at Crystal Palace.
While the late omission of Mason Greenwood due to injury has weakened the front line, it still boasts some shining stars. Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe has gained his first call-up, and promising Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi will always cause defenders problems.
Undoubtedly the strongest squad on paper, it is impossible to look away from a France side absolutely stacked with talent in every position. Sylvain Ripoll will have his work cut out trying to field his strongest starting 11.
Les Bleuets, who come in as favourites for the championship, were swept aside by eventual winners Spain in the 2019 semi-finals, however the expectations for this side, who many argue could compete in the official European Championships, is frankly greater.
The depth of his defenders will be the first of his issues. On current form, Sevilla’s Jules Kounde will inevitably be called upon, with one of Ibrahima Konate, Wesley Fofana or Benoit Badiashile likely partnering him. The latter, plying his trade with AS Monaco, was used most recently towards the end of their qualifying campaign. Omitting Fofana and Konate, who have both enjoyed terrific seasons at Leicester and RB Leipzig respectively, shows how good this defence really is.
A midfield all international managers would dream of choosing from, France’s central midfielders may well provide the biggest talking point of the starting 11. Rising star Eduardo Camavinga carries the most potential of the midfielders, as the 18-year-old oozes confidence. Alongside him, Hassem Aouar of Lyon, having played for the senior team, holds the class in the three to be deployed across the middle.
Finally, a quite terrifying attack for this level, will see Celtic’s Odsonne Edouard lead the line. Electrifying speed and directiveness will be offered on the talisman’s outside as Jonothan Ikone and Moussa Diaby look set to play a role. Although 21-year-old Amine Gouiri, who has enjoyed a terrific season in Ligue 1, will certainly have a say.
Similarly, to Spain, the Portugal squad has lost world class players to the senior squad. Premier League wingers Diogo Jota, and wonderkid Pedro Neto were key figures in the qualifying campaign, but will both miss the U-21 Championships.
As a result, Portugal find themselves with even Spain, Germany and Italy as favourites ahead of them, despite looking a more than good enough outfit to compete.
With Diogo Leite and Diogo Queirós most likely to line up at the back, Portugal will be sure to have an experienced, yet promising centre-back partnership, ready to make the step up to senior level and join Ruben Dias. On loan at AC Milan, Diogo Dalot has enjoyed a good season in Italy so far, and should be a threat going forward.
A very capable midfield will see the likes of Gedson Fernandes, Vitinha and Pedro Goncalves adopting an attacking approach. Goncalves, who is coming in off the back of an impressive campaign for runaway leaders Sporting CP, could be the most impressive of the midfield options.
Despite losing Rafael Leão to injury, Rui Jorge’s squad will have a number of quality players looking to bag goals. Francisco Trincao of Barcelona has shone for Portugal at previous youth tournaments, while highly-regarded teenager Francisco Conceição may prove his worth.
Having featured with one another throughout the age groups, this Portugal side should be fairly comfortable together, and arrive with plenty of confidence.
Players to look out for
- Youssoufa Moukoko – Germany
Regardless of Germany’s critics surrounding the depth of their underwhelming squad, they do have a couple of potential stars, and the most exciting is 16-year-old Youssoufa Moukoko.
After netting an astonishing 141 goals in 88 youth team games for Dortmund, the young striker has grabbed the attention of Europe’s elite.
Moukoko, who was only eligible to play for Dortmund as of November, already has 15 appearances for the first team, and bagged three goals in the process.
A combination of lethal finishing, clever off-ball movement, and natural speed make Moukoko a nightmare to play against, and align to produce a rising star with extraordinary goalscoring instincts.
Whether or not Germany progress deep into the knockout phase or not, it looks certain that this is an ideal opportunity for Moukoko to kickstart his career, and showcase his talent on the big stage.
- Sandro Tonali – Italy
With Gianluca Scamacca likely to garner some attention leading the line for Italy, 20-year-old Sandro Tonali may go more unobserved, as he anchors the midfield.
The way Tonali effortlessly goes about his game must be admired, and it is no wander comparisons have been drawn with former Italy midfielder Andrea Pirlo for some time now.
Having previously made the step up to senior level on four occasions, Tonali has never looked out of place and may well give this young Italy side some vital experience.
It would come as no surprise if the AC Milan loanee was to make it a permanent switch at the end of the season, and with excellent dribbling and passing capabilities, his role in Paolo Nicolato’s 3-5-2 could be a crucial one in Italy’s hopes of success.
- Teun Koopmeiners – Netherlands
Another vastly experienced player for this level, Teun Koopmeiners brings four seasons of Eredivisie football under his belt and an international senior cap.
The AZ Alkmaar captain should arguably have a place secured in the senior squad, but will instead seek glory at under-21 level, accompanied by some of the most exciting European talents, in Sven Botman, Myron Boadu and Brian Brobbey.
Koopmeiners, who can play in both central defence or in midfield, possesses incredible defensive and attacking qualities, with his box-to-box presence most likely to be seen throughout the tournament.
The under-21 European Championships will provide an excellent opportunity for Koopmeiners to show the talent he has, and test himself against high-level opposition.
No matter who you look out for, and who shines throughout, the U-21 European Championships always provide an exciting and entertaining watch, while throwing up stars of the future.
Featured Image Credit: Sports Illustrated