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Friday, June 10, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: July 8, 3:28 PM UK
The young ones

Mark Lomas

Two years ago in Sweden, a 20-year-old Mesut Ozil led England a merry dance, turning in a virtuoso display in the European Under-21 Championship final as Germany romped to a 4-0 victory. Less than 12 months later, he was starring for the senior team at the World Cup in South Africa, his creative influence guiding Joachim Low's side to the semi-finals and catching the eye of Real Madrid. For the next two weeks, Denmark will play host to the 18th European Under-21 Championship, as a collection of the continent's most talented youngsters congregate in what has become one of the most public shop windows in football. Ozil is not alone in making the step-up from Under-21 starlet to world beater, and there will be a number of promising players aiming to emulate the likes of Luis Figo, Francesco Totti and Iker Casillas when the tournament kicks off on Saturday. ESPNsoccernet looks at some of the players expected to enhance their reputations in Denmark over the next fortnight.

Denmark: Christian Eriksen, 19 (Ajax)

The Ajax playmaker's meteoric rise from unknown youngster to one of Europe's most sought-after players is exemplified by the fact he will be making his debut for the Under-21s at this summer's tournament. Recently selected by a panel led by Johan Cruyff as the Dutch Football Talent of the Year, Eriksen has established himself in Morten Olsen's senior team but will drop down to the Under-21s in a bid to inspire the host nation to a first triumph in the competition. Eriksen was the youngest player to appear at last summer's World Cup in South Africa and has set European football alight over the past 12 months with some thrilling performances for club and country. He became the creative hub of the first Ajax side to win the Eredivisie title in seven years in 2010-11, scoring six goals along the way. He has attracted envious glances from some of Europe's biggest sides, with AC Milan, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Real Madrid all linked to summer moves and a chance to cement his already stellar reputation awaits Eriksen in his homeland, though Ajax would be forgiven for praying he does not turn in the sort of displays they have become accustomed to.

Switzerland: Xherdan Shaqiri, 19 (FC Basel)

Commentators will probably allude to his name sounding like Colombian pop sensation Shakira and the FC Basel winger can certainly be expected to dazzle the crowds on the pitch in the way Gerard Pique's girlfriend does off it. Shaqiri is a fearless dribbler, whose balance, acceleration and nimble footwork make him a real threat down the flanks for Switzerland. He may only have two Under-21 caps, but that is because Shaqiri has become a mainstay in Ottmar Hitzfeld's senior side - playing 11 times since making his debut last year. He scored his first international goal in a Euro 2012 qualifier against England last year and also impressed against the Three Lions at Wembley a week ago. Shaqiri is a nightmare for defenders to play against and his physical strength belies his 5ft 7in frame; the Kosovan-born starlet also has major tournament experience having played a part in last summer's World Cup and is widely tipped to make a big impact in Denmark, with scouts from Italy and Germany likely to be watching him closely.

Iceland: Gylfi Sigurdsson, 21 (Hoffenheim)

The undisputed star of the Iceland squad, Sigurdsson demonstrated his importance to the team with two incredible individual strikes - one a curler, the other a swerver - against Scotland in his side's play-off victory to qualify for the finals. Opposition defenders will have been warned about his penchant for the spectacular; expect him to be given little room to shoot from anywhere within 35 yards of goal. Sigurdsson now plies his trade in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, though his root to the German top flight took him from a youth career at Reading through loan spells at unglamorous Shrewsbury and Crewe. He has shown why Hoffenheim were willing to part with 6 million last summer as, despite only starting 12 games, he has contributed ten goals and two assists and was named Fans' Player of the Year. He is a midfielder but can be a real threat when playing as a second striker and if he combines with AZ Alkmaar forward Johann Gudmundsson as well as he did in qualifying - Gudmundsson scored six goals in nine games - then Iceland could well be a surprise package.

Belarus: Mickhail Sivakov, 23 (Cagliari)

The absence of injured Vladimir Yuchenko - who pulled the strings and scored two goals in Belarus' shock play-off victory over five-time winners Italy - is a major blow to a side already considered major outsiders, but the presence of captain Sivakov should ease the blow. An all-action midfielder, Sivakov is the most experienced member of the Belarus squad, with ten caps (plus one for the senior side) to his name and also has plenty of motivation having also played in the 2009 European Under-21 Championship, when Heorhiy Kandratsyew's charges finished bottom of their group with just one point. Sivakov has a great touch and is most dangerous when bursting from central midfield with the ball at his feet. Impressive performances for BATE Borisov in the 2008-09 Champions League - when Real Madrid and Juventus were among the opposition - earned him a move to Cagliari and though he has played just three times for the Serie A side, he has impressed on loan spells at Piacenza and Wisla Krakow.

England: Jordan Henderson, 20 (Liverpool)

With Andy Carroll not included in Stuart Pearce's squad for the finals, new Liverpool signing Henderson can claim to be the most expensive player on show in Denmark. After sealing his switch to Anfield for an initial fee of 16 million, the midfielder will be keen to justify his price tag for the Three Lions. England will look to Henderson to pull the strings in midfield, whether it be threading an incisive pass or advancing with the ball at his feet, the 20-year-old will take on the role of playmaker, with Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge hoping to be the chief beneficiary of his eye for an assist. Henderson enjoyed a sensational season for Sunderland, which saw him named the club's Young Player of the Year and also earn a first senior cap, and he was responsible for creating 82 goalscoring opportunities for his team-mates in 2010-11 - 39 more than any of his team-mates and the fourth best total in the Premier League. As well as possessing excellent delivery from set-pieces and in open play, six goals in six games for the Under-21s shows that Henderson also has an eye for a goal himself; he scored a superb long-range effort against Romania in the play-offs to help England to a 2-1 aggregate victory.

Ukraine: Andriy Yarmolenko, 21 (Dynamo Kiev)

A first name is not the only similarity between Ukraine strikers Yarmolenko and Shevchenko, with the former tipped to emulate the latter for club and country. Dynamo Kiev's young No. 9 appears to possess many of the attributes that made his team-mate one of Europe's most fearsome strikers. Yarmolenko's ruthless streak in front of goal saw him score 11 times for Dynamo in last season's Ukrainian Premier League - one strike more than his more experienced strike partner. He has thus far struggled to transform that form to the Under-21 stage, failing to score in any of his ten appearances, though he has netted an impressive three goals in eight games for Ukraine's senior side. The 21-year-old's cool head in one-on-one situations and impressive finishing prowess will be valuable to a Ukraine side that can call on four players - including Yarmolenko - who have been allowed to drop down from the senior squad. Dynamic Shakhtar Donetsk midfielder Taras Stepanenko is another of those players and his Champions League experience makes him and Yarmolenko, who tasted Europa League action in 2010-11, Ukraine's most dangerous weapons.

Spain: Thiago Alcantara, 20 (Barcelona)

Picking out the jewel in Spain's positively glistening crown is an unenviable task. Manchester United target David De Gea and established stars Bojan Krkic, Diego Capel and Juan Mata are all sure to play an important role in La Roja's challenge, but Barcelona starlet Thiago Alacantra may be the one to watch in Denmark. The son of former Brazil midfielder Mazinho, Thiago's football DNA was nurtured at Barca's renowned La Masia academy, via Flamengo in his father's motherland. The Italian-born midfielder's exceptional control and vision have seen him tipped as a potential successor to Xavi and he made his debut for the Blaugranas aged 18. He flourished for Barcelona B early last season and became a more regular member of the first-team squad towards the end of the 2010-11 campaign; Thiago played 13 games and his presence on the substitutes' bench for the recent Champions League final meant that 11 of the Catalans' 18-man squad were La Masia graduates. Thiago has been courted by both Brazil and Italy at international level but having been influential in Spain's triumph at the 2008 European Under-17 Championship - where he scored in the final - and run to the final of the 2009 European Under-19 Championship, the talented midfielder has insisted he will represent his adopted nation.

Czech Republic: Tomas Pekhart, 22 (FC Nurnberg)

Quite simply a goalscoring sensation for the Under-21s, former Tottenham striker Pekhart will be many people's favourite for the Golden Boot. He may have struggled to convince Harry Redknapp of his abilities - Spurs released him in 2008 - but the Nurnberg frontman boasts an imperious international record of 16 goals in 22 games for the Czech Republic Under-21s. Pekhart, who has also represented his country at Under-16, Under-17, Under-18, Under-20 and senior level, scored in both the semi-final and final as the Czech Republic lost out to Russia on penalties in the 2006 European Under-17 Championship. He goes into this summer's finals as the top scorer in qualifying with nine goals and scored one in each leg of the Czech's play-off victory over Greece. A natural finisher, Pekhart has proven adept at scoring with his left foot, right foot and head and has shown he is capable of being a poacher and a creator his own goals; he possesses superb anticipation, but is also confident when it comes to taking on defenders. Aside from Pekhart, his 19-year-old strike partner Vaclav Kadlec appears an excellent prospect. He is both Sparta Prague and the Czech Republic senior side's youngest ever goalscorer - netting for the former at the age of 16 - and has inevitably drawn comparisons with Czech legends Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky as well as being named 'Czech Talent of the Year' in 2010.

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