The UEFA European Under-21 Championship gets underway in Israel on Wednesday and threatens to be one of the highest quality in history. Boycotts and protests regarding the host nation may have been the main headlines heading into the tournament, but should football be allowed to be the focus of the next two-and-a-half weeks, we could well be in for a real treat.
A field of eight nations, with squads containing many full internationals and future stars, will all be hoping for glory at the event this summer. Previous stars of the tournament include Juan Mata, Mario Balotelli and Mesut Ozil, in the last two iterations alone. Laurent Blanc, Andrea Pirlo, Luis Figo and Fabio Cannavaro are also just some of the illustrious names to have been voted the event's best player in previous years.
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It is not necessarily true that success at Under-21 level will translate into senior glory, but the Italian World Cup winning side of 2006 and German World Cup semifinalists of 2010 are both recent examples of sides whose ranks have boasted several winners of this competition. The Spanish side that has been so successful in recent years, meanwhile, can also call upon several players who were instead victorious at Under-19 level in 2002 and 2004. Youth tournaments, then, can at least be viewed as a good indicator of a country's potential for future success.
This summer's tournament is flush with quality, with full internationals in nearly every squad, and many players involved who are already known throughout European football. Marco Verratti patrols the midfield for Paris Saint-Germain, Thiago Alcantara has already won a host of trophies with Barcelona, and Kevin Strootman is reportedly on the shopping list of a number of European giants. They are just three of several such rising stars who will be on show.
Reigning champions Spain will face heavy opposition from Netherlands, England and Germany in particular -- all of whom boast squads containing former European champions at Under-17 level. Add the perennially strong Italy into the mix, along with impressive Russia and Norway sides from qualification -- as well as hosts Israel -- and the depth of talent in this year's competition begins to become clear.
It threatens to be a tournament to whet the appetite and, by June 18, we may have some new rising stars of the European game to herald.
UEFA Under-21 Championship: Team-by-Team Guide
Israel qualified for the tournament for just the second time, by virtue of their host nation status and will hope to put up a respectable showing in front of their home crowd. A nearly completely domestic-based squad boasts several talented players who will hope to impress, while the majority of the side's senior players have significant first-team experience. Any side expecting an easy ride could potentially come unstuck against a nation with a decent record in recent qualification campaigns.
Key player: Nir Biton (Ashdod) - A tall central midfielder who came close to joining Manchester City last summer, Biton will be expected to set the tempo for the Israeli side. Watch too for 21-year-old attacking midfielder Eyal Golasa, who has a handful of senior caps to his name.
The Three Lions boast a good record at youth team level in recent years, and overcame a difficult playoff tie against Serbia to reach a third consecutive Under-21 finals under manager Stuart Pearce. Several of the players achieved success in winning the 2009 European Under-17 Championship, while Pearce can call upon some relatively experienced Premier League players in Jordan Henderson, Danny Rose and Steven Caulker. The squad, though, for all its talent in midfield and wide areas is lacking a high quality centre forward.
Key Player: Wilfried Zaha (Manchester United) - One of the senior internationals in the squad, Zaha will be crucial in helping England score goals if they are to progress to the latter stages. He may still be raw, but the £15 million man has plenty of ability and has proved to be a big-game player.
Having dropped off the international radar a bit in recent years, Norwegian football is hoping for somewhat of a revival in the shape of many of this current Under-21 generation. Four of the squad will miss the opening game to play a senior World Cup qualifier, giving some indication of their importance to the national side, meaning that much of qualification for this tournament was done in their absence. A surprising playoff win over France sealed their presence, and they will be hoping for major scalps once the cavalry arrives.
Key Player: Markus Henriksen (AZ) - Now 20, Henriksen made his senior international debut at the age of 18 and has gone on to make 16 appearances for his country. The AZ attacking midfielder will miss the group opener, but will be central to the team's ambitions upon his return.
Five-time winners of the European Under-21 Championship, Italy will hope to add to their record-breaking title collection this summer. In the likes of Marco Verratti, Lorenzo Insigne, Manolo Gabbiadini and Mattia Destro, they will believe they have the quality of players with which to do so. The side sailed through qualification, including a fine playoff victory over Sweden. With Serie A experience running through the side, they will be a force in the competition if they can navigate a tricky group stage.
Key Player: Marco Verratti (PSG) - If Italy are to be successful in the coming weeks, it will require their deep-lying midfield playmaker to perform to the best of his abilities. Verratti will be key to unlocking the sides' forward talents, but will be afforded special attention by the side's opponents.
Defending champions Spain will once more be the side to beat this summer, having been the leading European nation at both senior and youth level over recent years. An almost pristine qualification campaign was backed up by a hiccup-free 8-1 playoff win over Denmark, meaning that every side in the draw will once more be fully aware of Spain's potential at this level. Isco, Thiago Alcantara and David De Gea lead the way, but the reigning champions boast an entire squad with both high-level experience and quality.
Key Player: Rodrigo (Benfica) - While it may be the folks in midfield who will determine the pace of the game, Spain will need their No. 9 to be on form in front of goal if they are to succeed. With 11 goals in nine qualifying games, Rodrigo will be the man they look to for goals as the competition intensifies.
On paper, Netherlands have perhaps the best squad of all the sides in the competition. They also sailed through qualification, and now find themselves reinforced by a number of players with senior international caps to their name. From back to front, the team will be composed of players linked with the great and good of European football, while there is also room in the squad for members of their triumphant Under-17 generation of 2011 and 2012. Spain will start as favourites, but Netherlands should be treated with equal respect.
Key Player: Adam Maher (AZ) - The 19-year-old playmaker will be central to the Netherlands' attacking unit over the next few weeks, linking an experienced midfield with the likes of Luuk de Jong in attack. Maher's talent is undoubted, but it is now time for him to place himself in the limelight at a major international tournament.
Russia have qualified for the European Under-21 championship this summer for the first time since 1998, making their way through a difficult qualifying group including frequent finalists Portugal. Czech Republic were then confidently dispatched in the playoff, meaning that Russia now have a chance to prove the strength of their youth football against Europe's best. They have been drawn in a difficult group, but will hope to claim at least one major scalp before heading home.
Key Player: Fyodor Smolov (Anzhi Makhachkala) - Now 23, it is fair to say that Smolov is yet to fully fulfil his talents. However, in qualification for this tournament the young forward was excellent, scoring seven goals in nine games to earn a senior national side call-up. Given the strength of upcoming opposition, Russia will need to take every chance that comes their way.
Another side with a nigh-on perfect record in qualification, Germany arrive at the competition with a talented and confident squad. Throughout the side there are players with a wealth of Bundesliga experience, which will surely serve them well in the coming weeks, while in striker Kevin Volland, as well as midfielders Sebastian Rode and Lewis Holtby, the side have genuine star quality. A tough group stage battle awaits, but Germany will be quietly confident of qualifying at Netherlands' or Spain's expense.
Key Player: Lewis Holtby (Tottenham Hotspur) - Tottenham's big January signing, midfielder Holtby is still eligible to play at Under-21 level, and has an astonishingly good record at this age group. Given his experience, he will be expected to take on a central role in orchestrating the side's attacks, as well as staying resolute in his defensive duties. Strikers Kevin Volland and Peniel Mlapa will need Holtby to be on top of his game in order to shine.