As we tied up the last remnants of the 2010/11 season, packed up the suitcases and prepared to hit a few well deserved weeks in the sun, we realised… football isn’t ending just yet. This weekend in Denmark, Europe’s finest young players will be showcased in the U21 European Championships, so here are eight of those players – one from each team – that you should be looking out for.
England’s brightest talents will be hoping to go one step further than they did last time out, when they were defeated in the final against Germany in 2009. But they have some stiff competition out there. Despite being the number one ranked team in UEFA, England must overcome U21 heavyweights Spain and Czech Republic in the group stage. The old men of Spanish international football have been dominating for the last four years; don’t put it past the young pretenders to do the same this summer.
A lot is also expected of hosts Denmark, who boast quite an experienced team for this level with a handful of players already plying their trade in the top leagues in Europe. They’re joined in Group A with Switzerland, Belarus and Iceland – who could be regarded as dark horses for the tournament, with a strong team back-boned by former Reading midfielder and now Hoffenheim player Gylfi Sigurðsson
Christian Eriksen | Denmark
Starting with the hosts, Christian Eriksen is without the doubt the crown jewel of the Danish team hoping for U21 success this summer. At just 19-years, the midfielder has 14 senior appearances under his belt, but has been pegged down to play in the tournament on home turf having never played a game at U21 level previously. As well as nailing down a regular place in the senior national team, Eriksen has a full season in the Eredivisie under his belt with Ajax. After picking up the league trophy last month, I’m sure he has a taste for silverware.
Eriksen, who became the youngest player to appear at the 2010 World Cup, has been attracting quite a lot of interest from clubs around Europe and has even been compared to the great Michael Laudrup, with people drawing likenesses to his finesse and technique. Eriksen plays in the classic number 10 role, bursting forward at any given opportunity. In front of his home crowd, expect the darling of Danish football to be one of the best performers in the tournament.
Xherdan Shaqiri | Switzerland
The FC Basel winger is a player I have written about in better detail before, on the back of an eye-catching performance against the English senior team. This is the first chance we’ve gotten to see Shaqiri in full focus, and some people believe that his stock will rise the most this summer – pending a good tournament – with the allure of top flight football in Germany, Spain and even England too strong to ignore.
Shaqiri is a left winger, with all the ingredients to trouble even the most sound of defences – as England and Joe Hart found out, when he sent a left footed scorcher past the City keeper when they met in September. Shaqiri has a small and stocky frame, but boasts phenomenal running power and a terrific dribbling technique with either foot – on either flank. As with Christian Eriksen, Shaqiri has senior team experience and is vital to Switzerland’s hopes of progressing in the tournament. The Yugoslavian born midfielder has shown great loyalty by staying with Basel for so long, but if any of the tournament’s top players were to move this summer… expect it to be Xherdan.
Iker Muniain | Spain
David De Gea, the man expected to be trusted with the Manchester Utd number one jersey next season, is an obvious candidate to watch out for in the Spanish squad, as are the likes of Javi Martinez, Diego Capel, Juan Mata and Bojan… but I’ve chosen Atheltic Bilbao forward Iker Muniain.
A lot of people expected the teenager to be the natural predecessor to Fernando Torres at Liverpool, and the two parties have been linked on more than one occasion. However, not many expected Torres to move as soon as he did, and with the recent arrival of Luis Suarez – who would be a little bit similar to Muniain – there may not be much room for him at the club, at least for the time being.
So far praise has been high for the 18-year-old. The “new Messi” and the “Basque Rooney” are just two monikers that have been placed over his head, but the comparisons wouldn’t be that far apart. Muniain is no stranger to competitive football, much like most of the Spanish team, having played over 60 times for Bilbao. Having operated mainly as a left winger last season, Muniain may not get the chance this time around – but if he does, expect him to impress.
Gylfi Sigurdsson | Iceland
Household names are few and far between in these sort of competitions, but for Iceland this is especially true. Most of the squad ply their trade in Iceland and Scandinavia, two play in the Football League Championship while the rest are scattered around with teams that wouldn’t be title challengers.
Gylfi Sigurdsson is most definitely the biggest name in the side at the moment, having secured a £7million move to German side Hoffenheim just a year ago. The 21-year-old has already began establishing himself in the Icelandic senior team, but it is his club career to date which has him garnering the most interest. I’m sure by the end of the tournament we’ll be well aware of a couple of more Icelandic talents, but Sigurdsson is the stand out talent in a side that could potentially go far.
Taras Stepanenko | Ukraine
Every Ukraine player plays in his home country, so it’s difficult to pick one standout talent. But one player may be a little bit familiar to some, and that is Shakhtar Donetsk’s Taras Stepanenko
The Ukrainian midfield player is the captain of the U21 side, and unless he earned the armband by picking his name out of a hat he should be an integral part of a side that faces the mountainous task of overcoming Spain, England and Czech Republic in Group B. Stepanenko has already made four senior team appearances, and his dynamic performances from centre field have been catching the eye of some of the bigger European leagues.
Tomas Pekhart | Czech Republic
I am reliably informed that this Czech Republic side are no pushovers, and England and Spain will have a battle on their hands to quality past the group stage.
Spearheading the Czech attack is a name Tottenham and Southampton fans might find familiar – Tomas Pekhart. The 22-year-old began his career in London where he shipped out on loan to Southampton, but failed to establish a career in England and instead returned to his home country. It was a productive season, he was clinical for FK Baumit Jablonec – scoring 15 goals. Sparta Prague, the country’s most famous club, brought him on a brief loan spell where he excelled, scoring seven times in just nine games. The striker has already been snapped up this summer, and will be on show in the Bundesliga next season with FC Nuremburg. With 16 goals already at U21 level, Pekhart coul be in amongst the goals in Denmark.
Mikhail Sivakov | Belarus
Belarus are the big outsiders for this competition, even though they gained qualification by beating Italy in a play-off. My knowledge of the Belarusian U21 team is sketchy at best, but even though they’ll be too busy defending then attacking I’ve handpicked midfielder Mikhail Sivakov as one to watch. Sivakov is the most experienced player Belarus have at this level, and the 23-year-old has already left his home league for Serie A side Cagliari. He’s currently on loan at Wisla Krakow, where he’s played fourteen times.
Connor Wickham | England
A lot of the English side have already established themselves at their clubs, some playing at the very top of the Premier League while others are scattered elsewhere. Danny Sturridge is a standout for the U21s, after an eye-catching half-season with Bolton on loan. Phil Jones and Jordan Henderson are obvious ones to watch, given their recent activity in the transfer window, as are the likes of Scott Sinclair who is fresh from a play-off final hat-trick for Swansea.
But I’ve chosen Ipswich striker Connor Wickham, who many believe will be making a move to the Premier League this summer. The 18-year-old may not get much playing time from the first minute in Denmark, but he has all the talents to make a big impact if called upon. Liverpool have been most regularly linked with the striker, while Arsenal and most recently Sunderland have both been mentioned too.