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Friday, June 10, 2011
ESPNsoccernet: June 11, 10:28 AM UK
Denmark play host to U-21 feast

Michael Huguenin

In the lead up to the European Under-21 Championship that will be held on the Jutland peninsula in the west of Denmark from June 11-25, the Danish press has focused on cohesion and teamwork as the host country's main strengths. "The team is the star because we don't have players at that level that can go out and win the European Championship for us," head coach, Keld Bordinggaard, told Danish newspaper Politiken. "It's unbelievable, we play like we know each other really well," Danish striker, Nicki Bille Nielsen said after Denmark beat Turkey 4-0 in a pre-tournament fixture on Monday. "I think it's because we have a lot of fun together." Bille Nielsen was the match winner in Denmark's final warm up match as the Spanish-based striker scored twice and, despite being without their three best players (key playmaker Christian Eriksen, who will play in the tournament; and Nicklas Bendtner and Simon Kjaer, who won't) the Danes completely dominated Turkey. Denmark's chances of winning on home soil are severely weakened by Bendtner and Kjaer's absence: Bendtner has decided he'd rather get to know his new son than play in the youth tournament, while Kjaer wanted to play but was denied by his club, Wolfsburg of the German Bundesliga. They will kick-off their campaign in Group A against Switzerland in the northern Danish city of Aalborg on Saturday night and the Swiss will rely heavily on a pair of players that highlight the multicultural side of their society. The attacking duo of Xherdan Shaqiri and Nassim Ben Khalifa have Albanian and Tunisian heritage respectively. Shaqiri, a midfielder, was a key part of FC Basel's run to the Swiss title this season, while Ben Khalifa was a member of the Swiss side that won the 2009 Under-17 World Cup. The swift striker scored four goals in Switzerland's successful campaign and is one of four players from that squad involved in Denmark. But the side will be without two of its brightest young stars, Eren Derdiyok (Bayer Leverkusen) and Valentin Stocker (FC Basel); it's a common problem. Iceland meet Belarus in the other Group A match and, after scoring 33 goals in qualifying, they will compete in their first ever competitive finals. Dead ball specialist Gylfi Sigurdsson, who plies his trade for Hoffenheim in Germany, is the star of the small island nation and was the match winner in the second leg of Iceland's playoff success against Scotland. The 21-year-old scored two stunning goals from long range to clinch a 2-1 victory on the day and a 4-2 win on aggregate. Opponents Belarus are the big unknowns of the tournament. The Eastern European country pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the play-off stage of qualifying: Italy won 2-0 in the first leg but, back on home soil, the Belarusians pulled off a 3-0 triumph to go through to the finals. Mikhail Sivakov, on loan at Wisla Krakow from Cagliari, is one of the few Belarusians based abroad and the player to watch in red and green. In Group B, Spain take on England on Sunday, in what could be the match of the tournament. For England, Arsenal's Jack Wilshere is the biggest loss, while Liverpool's Andy Carroll will also be sorely missed. But Stuart Pearce will have Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson alongside a host of other talented youngsters. England are the only country to have qualified for the last three European Under-21 Championships and are steadily improving. In 2007, the English made the semi-finals; in 2009 they lost the final to Germany. It's all set up for them to take the final step this year, but in a late blow both Manchester City's Micah Richards and Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs have withdrawn from the squad with injury in the final days before the tournament. England's squad is still full of Premier League experience, however, with Manchester United's Chris Smalling, Aston Villa's Marc Albrighton and Everton's Jack Rodwell the pick of the bunch. Group rivals Spain are certainly brimming with top-class talent - Bojan Krkic and David De Gea to name but two - making them favourites to lift the trophy. They have two World Cup winners headlining the squad, as Javi Martinez and Juan Mata were both part of the Spanish squad that triumphed in South Africa last year. Mata, who plays for Valencia, is one of the brightest attacking talents in Spain's Primera Liga and scored nine goals and set up 12 others last season. But with Thiago (Barcelona) and Diego Capel (Sevilla) waiting in the wings, there is certain to be competition for places. In the other Group B match, Ukraine will meet the Czech Republic. The Czechs were the only team to qualify undefeated for the finals and, despite drawing the tougher of the two groups, they have a big chance to make the semi-finals. The Czechs were the best defensive team in qualifying, conceding four goals, and the second best attacking side behind Iceland. FC Nurnberg's Tomas Pekhart is the star up front; the 22-year-old scored nine goals in qualifying, the most of any player, while, in defence, Marek Suchy is the lynchpin of a well-oiled back four. Ukraine's coach, Pavlo Yakovenko, will rely on a solid defensive system, which includes six players from the side that won the Under-19 Championship in 2009. Captain Taras Stepanenko (Shakhtar Donetsk) will play a key role as the link between defence and attack, but they will have to play above themselves if they are to qualify for the latter stages.

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