The U21 European Championships have long since been a hotbed of talent, where future stars have first earned their international stripes and gained plaudits, sometimes for the first time. Nowadays, many of the squads selected by their respective head coaches are jam-packed with players used to the rigours of top level football. This bodes well for an entertaining and high-quality competition.
2017’s edition of the tournament promises to be a cracker, showcasing some of Europe’s finest burgeoning young stars. Squad announcements have been particularly exciting with the likes of Spain and Portugal naming some of the strongest rosters in recent years.
No doubt the big boys will steal the show, and the headlines, but be sure to look out for some of the smaller nations in this 12-team tournament. Let’s not forget that Serbia’s U21 side harbours a core of their U20 World Cup winning team from 2015. The Balkan nation are a force to be reckoned with for sure.
England – Group A
Underwhelming in 2015 as a side with the likes of Harry Kane and John Stones bombed out of the tournament in the group stages losing to both Portugal and Italy in less than spectacular fashion. Aidy Boothroyd will be hoping his crop of 2017 will manage to do a better job and progress to the knockout rounds considering they will face hosts Poland – making their first appearance since 1994 and Slovakia – making only their second tournament appearance.
While their squad is depleted due to injuries to potential key players such as Patrick Roberts, England’s senior side have elected to call up 19-year-old Marcus Rashford rather than allow him to participate in this summer’s U21 tournament. When you consider the development that the aforementioned Kane and Stones have gone through over the past two seasons following their participation at this prestigious tournament, it would have made sense to blood the Manchester United youngster. Instead he features in England’s World Cup Qualifiers whereby qualification is a foregone conclusion.
Elsewhere there is a wealth of Football League talent in the side but in comparison to competing European nations, not a great deal of top-flight experience. Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham enjoyed a purple patch for the entirety of the 2016-17 campaign while on loan at Bristol City, scoring 23 times for the Championship side. He now looks on his way to starring in a Premier League side – albeit on loan – next season and will understandably look to impress by carrying on his prolific form.
Jordan Pickford will likely start between the posts for England U21 following a topsy-turvy season for him at Sunderland. Undoubtedly the Black Cats’ star player despite being the Premier League’s basement club for the vast majority of the season, Pickford has been subject to a £30m bid from Everton and a stellar Euro’s performance will only justify that price tag.
Portugal – Group B
Formidable finalists in 2015, headed by ex-Monaco playmaker Bernardo Silva, Portugal were unlucky to lose out on penalties to a robust Sweden side. With a number of the Class of 2015 going on to become stalwarts in Portugal’s senior side that claimed glory in France last summer, it is clear that the Portuguese youth teams are certainly a setup with potential and geared towards the future.
This year they do not have the likes of João Mario, Bernardo Silva and William Carvalho. Instead a new breed of Portuguese youth will aim to go one better than their counterparts in 2015. The men looking to electrify will be the likes of Renato Sanches who needs little introduction; still only 19, Rúben Neves (20) – FC Porto’s youngest captain, and Gonçalo Guedes (20) – snapped up by Paris St. Germain in January after starring at Benfica.
Portugal’s defence will be manned by a core of players currently plying their trade at the highest level. João Cancelo (23) a starter for Valencia, meanwhile Rúben Semedo (23) has just sealed a €14m move to Villarreal CF. Alongside him in the centre of defence is another product of Sporting CP’s illustrious academy; Tobias Figueiredo (23), who spent 2016-17 out on loan at Portuguese Primera Liga side C.D. Nacional.
Sporting CP’s reputable youth programme has contributed considerably to Portuguese squads in the past and this year is no different. Daniel Podence, Iuri Medeiros, Francisco Geraldes and Bruma all products of Academia Sporting who hold a place in 2017’s Seleção.
It is no coincidence that Portuguese talents are snapped up by the top clubs at a premium early in their career. Their record shows exactly why this is the case, and they will be looking to make their individual stock rise with a successful U21 Euro’s campaign.
Serbia – Group B
Ten members of this Serbia squad have made ten or more appearances for the U21 side, many of whom were a part of the triumphant U20 World Cup victory in 2015. This perhaps explains why there is only one teenager in the entire Serbian squad; Nikola Milenković (19).
Similar to that of the Portuguese squad, Serbia’s young stars have already been signed by Europe’s biggest names. Marko Grujić (21) has found it difficult to break through into the first team at Liverpool, but his talents as a playmaker whilst at Red Star Belgrade is still ample ammunition to fire this Serbia side to glory. The same can be said about ex-Partizan boy Andrija Živkovic (20) at Benfica. The winger’s ability must not be understated however as he was a vital participant in the victorious U20 campaign just two years ago which attracted European interest in the first place.
Some of the players still in the Serbian SuperLeague such as Uroš Djurdjević have plenty of experience in the U21 setup. The 23-year-old has 27 U21 appearances and 15 goals at this level. Coming off the back of a prolific domestic campaign for Partizan, Djurdjević will be confident coming into this tournament. He will be rivalled for a starting berth by Ognjen Ožegović (22) who also plays in Serbia for Čukarički. A journeyman already at his age, Ožegović has played for eight professional clubs but has managed to score goals almost everywhere he has been.
Once of Manchester United, Spanish-born Vanja Milinković-Savić is in contention to start between the posts. He is set to sign for Serie A side Torino in July after proving his worth in Poland with Lechia Gdańsk. He will be competing for the No. 1 shirt with Filip Manojlović, a full Serbian international and current Red Star Belgrade stopper. The smallest of the pair is the latter, standing at just 6ft 6in; VMS is 6ft 71⁄2 in. Quite a formidable prospect for opposition attackers.
Winner of the 2013 U19 European Championship and winning goalscorer in the 2015 U20 World Cup Final, Nemanja Maksimović is a giant of Serbian youth football. The imposing attacking midfielder has been linked with a whole host of European clubs ever since his performance at the U20 World Cup and his inclusion in this year’s European Championship squad is a great boost to the Serbian cause. The 22-year-old is set to join Valencia CF in July following the conclusion of the tournament. By that point, he will be hoping to have added to his honours list with his national side.
Spain – Group B
The hottest release of the summer was not a brand new track by Kendrick Lamar or Justin Bieber, it was when Spain’s squad for the U21 European Championship was dropped. An array of talent from front to back, it is quite extraordinary the rate at which the conveyor belt of gifted Spanish players keeps churning them out. This particular squad has a wealth of top division experience; sometimes across a number of Europe’s top leagues. You need only to look to the calibre of players that have been left out to comprehend how exciting the current crop are.
In goal, Albert Celades has gone for the aptly named Kepa (22). At present the young ‘keeper is number one at San Mamés, forging his way into one of Athletic Bilbao’s notoriously brilliant sides.
Protecting their goalkeeper will likely be a quartet of Héctor Bellerin (22), already capped at senior level, whose reported love affair with Barcelona has left some Arsenal fans reeling. Valencia CF’s José Luis Gayà (22) will start on the left side of defence and loves to bomb up the wing, causing havoc for opposition full-backs. In his position, he is understandably one of the more lucrative acquisitions a top club could hope for.
The heart of Spain’s defensive armada looks very solid as Jesús Vallejo (20) and Jorge Meré (20) are two no-nonsense defenders with an abundance of experience at the top level despite their age. Vallejo has enjoyed a season developing on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt where he was a DFB Pokal finalist. Meré on the other hand endured relegation with Sporting Gijón but nevertheless was an ever-present in Gijón’s defence where he ensured their fight for survival went down to the wire. Should the Spanish defence work in cohesion, it is difficult to see the opposition troubling Kepa too often.
The midfield selection is where this squad gets really juicy. Celades is spoilt for choice as the assortment on offer is better than most top international sides. Atléti’s Saúl Ñiguez heads up the midfielders, a player of great European pedigree thanks to his contributions in the Champions League and La Liga over the past two campaigns. Despite being just 22, Saúl certainly feels like a senior player amongst this squad. A player who fits a similar bill is Gerard Deulofeu (23); frustratingly fantastic it depends which version of Deulofeu turns up in Poland as his consistency has been an issue wherever he has played.
Not many other countries can boast a Champions League final scorer in their roster, however Spain can in the form of Real Madrid’s Marco Asensio (21). The Balaeric boy has really blossomed at Santiago Bernabeu this season under Zinedine Zidane and became a popular choice from the bench. Barcelona boast their own young Spaniard in Denis Suárez (23). One of the more decorated players at U21 level, Suárez will hope to draw on his Barça experiences to ensure he has a notable tournament in an attempt to cement himself in the first team setup at Camp Nou on a more regular basis.
Leading the line will undoubtedly be one of La Liga 2016-17’s standout players; Sandro Ramírez (21). The Malaga forward has been linked with a move away from La Rosaleda non-stop since his 16-goal haul in all competitions. A likely destination is Merseyside as Everton have reportedly begun talks with the ace finisher. An ex-La Masia product, it is evident that given the opportunity he has showcased his distinguishable ability away from Camp Nou and with a considerable amount of minutes now under his belt, he will be coming into this tournament on a roll.
Italy – Group C
Headlining Group C are the Azzurini, looking to add to their five U21 Euro’s titles; their last coming in 2004 when the likes of Alberto Gilardino, Andrea Barzagli and Daniele De Rossi were the posterboys. This time around Head Coach Luigi Di Biagio has selected a solid squad of 23. Notable inclusions are Gigi Donnarumma (18), AC Milan’s teenage goalkeeping sensation. The youngest member of this bunch; Donnarumma could prove to play one of the most important roles if he carries on his form that has seen his meteoric rise to the No. 1 spot at the San Siro which he holds such a firm grip on. The 18-year-old made more saves in Serie A than any other ‘keeper during 2016-17, keeping a monstrous 12 clean sheets in the process. Good luck, attackers.
Protecting their colossal ‘keeper will be a stern rearguard made up of Serie A’s finest talents. Antonio Barreca (22), Daniele Rugani (22), Andrea Conti (23) and Mattia Caldara (23) have amassed plenty of top flight minutes between them during the course of 2016-17 and that should undoubtedly show in their fearsome and cohesive defensive work. Conti and Caldara in particular were some of Serie A’s star players during the season just passed, starring for Gian Piero Gasperini’s high-flying Atalanta. Caldara, a goalscoring defender was swiftly snapped up by Juventus in the winter transfer window, meanwhile Conti has attracted plenty of reputable interest thanks to stellar work down the right flank.
In the middle of the park, Italy are likely to field a midfield triumvirate of Lorenzo Pellegrini (20), Marco Benassi (22) and Roberto Gagliardini (23). AC Milan’s 19-year-old maestro Manuel Locatelli will be in hot contention for a starting berth too, deemed necessary for the U21 side rather than venturing to Korea for the U20 World Cup.
The anticipated midfield trio are stalwarts of their respective club sides. Gagliardini recently joined Internazionale from Atalanta, initially on loan but with an obligation to buy in 2018 after impressing at the Bergamo side in the first half of last season. Having recently made his senior international debut, he will be hoping to excite Italy boss Gian Piero Ventura with performances that show he can make the step up permanently and feature in Don Ventura’s plans for the upcoming World Cup in Russia. Benassi has been a mainstay in a so-so Torino outfit and will likewise be pushing to be in Ventura’s thoughts through leading by example at this summer’s tournament in Poland.
Pellegrini is the youngest of the trio at just 20-years-old but contributed to yet another impressive Sassuolo campaign with six goals and six assists to his name. Italy U21’s undoubted creative influence, Pellegrini has potential to be one of the standout performers of this competition.
In the final third, look out for a trident of attacking potency. Domenico Berardi (22), Federico Bernardeschi (23) and Andrea Petagna (21), all of whom have enjoyed seasons of development and progression will be the likely lads leading Italy’s forward charges. Petagna, an imposing, brutish forward currently at Atalanta – akin to the likes of Diego Costa – netted on five occasions in Serie A during 2016-17, as well as registering seven assists outlining himself as one Serie A's most generous forwards. Meanwhile Berardi accumulated the same tally but with considerably fewer minutes due to an early season injury, in a Sassuolo side pushing for European qualification. 2016-17 may have been his poorest senior season in terms of goalscoring prowess but his ability cannot be understated. When the Italian is on form, he is hot stuff.
While Berardi can deputise as a winger-cum-forward, Bernardeschi is most comfortable starting from wide on the flank. One of the most decorated when it comes to senior caps in this U21 squad as the Fiorentina man has nine to his name. A player with exquisite technique and an elegant dribbler, Bernardeschi has the potential to be player of the tournament should Italy go all the way. His nickname; Brunelleschi, is an ode to the famous Italian architect and suited to La Viola’s winger who from dead ball situations can be deadly, as showcased in Serie A last season. His 11 league goals made him 2nd top goalscorer at Stadio Artemio Franchi only behind target-man Nikola Kalinić.
Germany – Group C
Germany’s U21 European Championship squad is full of top young players, although perhaps not as star-studded as their direct tournament rivals Spain, Portugal and Italy. Nevertheless, following the continental theme Head Coach Stefan Kuntz has named a squad with a glut of Bundesliga minutes during 2016-17.
Captain Maximilian Arnold has been a Wolfsburg mainstay since his first team debut in 2011 and will lead this Germany U21 side out in Poland this summer. A DFB-Pokal winner in 2015, Arnold knows what it takes to win a knockout competition and Kuntz will be relying on his 23-year-old captain’s expertise in this field.
An exciting selection containing Bayern Munich’s newest addition Serge Gnabry (21) will be aiming not to disappoint or emulate the U20’s performance in Korea at the U20 World Cup. Gnabry in particular will be coming into the tournament buoyant thanks to his move from Werder Bremen following a bumper year in front of goal with 14 goals for club and country, albeit three of those coming against San Marino.
Through the middle Germany will rely on the hot property that is Mahmoud Dahoud (21). A creative influence for Borussia Mönchengladbach attracted the considerable interest of BvB. Dortmund secured the Syrian-born youngster’s signature for the beginning of the 2017-18 season from under the noses of some of Europe’s top clubs. Yet to score at youth international level for Germany, Dahoud will be looking to break his duck – hopefully in similar fashion to his piledriver against Schalke 04.
Giving licence to roam to the attacking players will be the resolute and steadfast German defence. 22-year-old Niklas Stark should feature at the heart of Die Mannschaft’s backline following an excellent campaign in securing European football with Hertha BSC. Potentially joining him in defence could be Schalke’s Thilo Kehrer (20), who enjoyed a breakthrough second half of the season under the recently sacked Markus Weinzierl.
Elsewhere in the creative hub of this Germany squad sits Mainz 05’s Levin Öztunali (21). His contributions in the final third were pivotal in helping his club stave off the dreaded relegation play-off. Five goals and six assists across 30 league appearances were instrumental from the right-sided winger-cum-midfielder. His set piece delivery and audacity from range could potentially catch out one or two of Germany’s opponents at the U21 Euro’s.