The UEFA Under 21 Championships are upon us, one of the most important and well-regarded youth tournaments around the world, and will certainly give some indication of which European players could be the next big names of the future—bearing in mind the likes of Petr Cech, Alberto Aquilani, and Ryan Babel are just some of the names to have starred in previous versions of the tournament.
Interestingly this season's tournament is missing a number of big names, who are traditionally associated with success at this level. In particular the likes of defending champions Holland, France, and Portugal are missing from this year's tournament, but here is a team-by-team guide into all the teams participating in the tournament, and some of the players to watch out for.
Perhaps the weakest of all the sides in this season's competition, Belarus have qualified for this competition only once before, when there team was spear-headed by one Aliaksander Hleb, but they qualified this time through coming from behind to beat Turkey 2-1 in their play-off match.
Though they are certainly one of the weaker sides they may have a slight advantage in that their league season has only just begun, meaning that their home-grown players could be fresher than their oppositions.
Everyone's Watching: Mikhail Sivakov—In a team packed with home-grown talents, Sivakov is one who has opted to play abroad, with Cagliari in Italy, and this tall defensive midfielder is highly thought of in his own country.
Most Important Player: Sergey Krivets is an exciting playmaker, who is an integral part of the FC Bate team—scoring their first ever Champions League goal against Juventus. He could well be to this Belarusian team what Hleb was to their last team.
One For The Scouts: Leonid Kovel—A capable goalscorer who has been capped for the Belarussian senior team. Kovel is a pacey striker who could surprise a few people in this tournament.
Chances: Remote, likely to depart early.
England, led by former-international Stuart Pearce, have been making significant progress in under-21 football in recent years, and come into this tournament as dark horses for the title.
Certainly their team has a bold mixture of experienced heads and exciting young talents. The likes of Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Gabriel Agbonlahor, and Theo Walcott are full internationals, while Nedum Onouha, Fabrice Muamba, James Milner, and Mark Noble are all Premiership regulars.
But the squad also contains exciting young talents who could catch the eye, in the likes of Kieran Gibbs, Jack Rodwell and Adam Johnson.
Everyone's Watching: Micah Richards—With England lacking a clear long-term solution to their right back position, the fortunes of Micah Richards will be monitored closely by England fans.
Most Important Player: James Milner—vastly experienced, having debuted in the Premiership as, at that time, its youngest ever player, Milner boasts a record amount of caps at international youth level for England, and this is likely to be his swansong for the under 21 team.
One For The Scouts: Jack Rodwell—A precocious talent, capable of playing both in central defence and midfield, many judges believe he will one day play for England and this tournament could well demonstrate exactly why.
Chances: Could surprise a few people, though much will depend on their match with Germany. Dark horses.
The Spanish are always contenders at this level, and their formidable youth development policy is a central point to their success on the international stage.
Certainly this crop will be keen to emulate the achievements of their predecessors, and there is little to suggest that they cannot go ahead and achieve great things once more. The Spanish team is packed with players with La Liga experience, such as Miguel Torres, Raul Garcia, Javi Garcia, Esteban Granero, Javier Martinez, Diego Capel, Sergio Asenjo, and their crown jewel Bojan Krkic.
Everyone's Watching: Bojan Krkic—The Barcelona starlet has enjoyed a successful campaign with his club side, though his personal contribution was negligible, and he will be looking to carry on that successful run. His record for Spanish youth teams is formidable and he has senior international experience, and he could well be the star of the tournament.
Most Important Player: Raul Garcia—easily the most experienced player in this team, Garcia is a precociously talented midfielder, boasting a wide passing range which is so vital to his team.
One For The Scouts: Sergio Asenjo—Goalkeepers rarely achieve top billing, but Asenjo is so highly regarded that he is sure to receive plenty of attention. The Vallodolid stopper debuted for their first team at an early age, and his sparkling form has seen him strongly linked with the likes of FC Barcelona and Atletico Madrid.
Chances: Boasting a fine group of players, Spain are certainly among the favourites for the trophy.
The five-times winners of the tournament enter this year's version with a strong squad, and a strong chance of success. Italy has a long-held tradition of producing talented young players, and this squad is testament to that tradition.
Their squad boasts a strong all-round presence, with the likes of Santon and Criscito shoring up their defence. While in midfield, Cigarini, Dessena, Marchisio and Motta will pose problems to any side.
But it is in attack that their real strength lies, where Robert Acquafresca and Alberto Paloschi accompany starlets Sebastian Giovinco and Mario Balotelli.
Everyone's Watching: Mario Balotelli—Has experienced a turbulent second season at Inter Milan, but there is no doubting his potential. His goalscoring record is formidable and fortunes and form could be vital to Italy's success.
Most Important Player: Claudio Marchisio—Perhaps the most experienced in this Italian team, Marchisio's form in central midfield could be a vital part in how Italy perform. A mature, tactically astute prospect, he could thrive in Sweden.
One For The Scouts: Sebastien Giovinco—Despite not featuring regularly in the Juventus first team, Giovinco is still viewed by many as one of Italy's brightest attacking prospect. The formica atomica (Atomic Ant) is a playmaker of the highest order, and could be a key figure if Italy are to emerge victorious.
Chances: Like Spain, boast players with experience and ability, and the Azzurini are rightly regarded as favourites for the title.
The hosts come into this tournament with little tournament pedigree, apart from a rare appearance in the 2004 tournament where they were spearheaded by Bolton's Johan Elmander.
Now that the Swedes having qualified as hosts they will be hoping to put him a good performance on their home turf, yet their team mainly comprised of home-grown talents will be up against it to go far in this tournament.
But there are some unpolished gems to be found, certainly Blackburn's Martin Olsson, Mattias Bjarsmyr, Pontus Wernbloom, and the exciting PSV striker Ola Toivonen are ones to keep an eye on.
Everyone's Watching: Marcus Berg—Hit 15 goals during an injury-hit campaign for Heerenveen. Is tall, a good header of the ball, two footed, and will certainly be on the radar of scouts throughout the tournament.
Most Important Player: Ola Toivonen—a striker who is gaining quite a reputation. Toivonen was signed in January by PSV, and has since scored six goals for the Dutch side, and has drawn comparisons with fellow Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic due to his style of play and fiery temperament.
One For The Scouts: Robin Soder—An exciting prospect who has attracted the attention of the likes of Werder Bremen and AC Milan in the past, Soder is also the youngest ever player to feature for Sweden's under 21 team.
Chances: The hosts lack the punch to sustain a challenge, though they are best placed to cause an upset.
The finalists from the 2007 tournament are hoping to go one better this time and win the tournament, though they will be without some of their stars, Branislav Ivanovic and Bosko Jankovic. But despite their absence, this Serbian team are packed with talented youngsters who could go far in this tournament.
The likes of captain Milan Smiljanic, Gojko Kacar and Manchester United's Zoran Tosic all featured in the side which reached that final, and have all been capped by the Serbian senior side and will be key components of their side. But there is new talent emerging to accompany the more senior players, in the likes of Ajax's Miralem Sulejmani, left back Ivan Obradovic, and Dusan Tadic.
Everyone's Watching: Zoran Tosic—Lack of first team opportunities have hindered Manchester United's January signing, but this tournament should provide Tosic with the chance to make an impression on an international stage.
Most Important Player: Gojko Kacar—A dominant defensive midfielder, and a real powerhouse talent in midfield. His form for Serbia in qualifying was vital to their success, as he weighed in with six goals, including five in one match against Hungary. Currently plays for Hertha Berlin, many pundits are predicting great things from the Serbian midfielder.
One For The Scouts: Miralem Sulejmani—Believed by some commentators to be the next great talent to come from Serbia, the Ajax striker's talent has attracted suitors, though after a difficult first season at the Amsterdam side, he will be determined to showcase all his talents.
Chances: For many, the Serbs are the best outside bet for the title, the talent is there, and should they get on a roll then they could well cause a stir.
The minnows have never before qualified for this tournament and it seems highly unlikely that they will be around for very long in this one. Markku Kanerva's team are built around a solid defence, and rely heavily on star strikers Jarno Parikka and Teemu Pukki, while the majority of this team are domestically based and will be looking to attract the attention of some foreign teams.
Everyone's Watching: Jarno Parikka has a brilliant goalscoring record at this level, with 15 goals in 17 appearances. Was HJK's top goalscorer last season, and their coach likened him to legendary goalscorer Raul, and his form has seen him capped for the Finnish senior side.
Most Important Player: Tim Sparv—The Finnish captain, and an ex-colleague of Theo Walcott in the Southampton youth team, Sparv stands tall, literally, on the pitch, at 1.94 metres in height. Very much the dominant heartbeat of this Finnish team.
One For The Scouts: Teemu Pukki—Not many Finns have travelled abroad, certainly the likes of Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia are famous examples, but Pukki who features for the Sevilla youth team is certainly one to watch. Pukki, who has featured for the Sevilla first team, has a fine record with the club's reserve team, and at 19 is very much seen as the finest Finnish prospect of this generation.
Chances: The Finns have never qualified for this tournament before, and this group of players will not expect to go far.
For a side so dominant in international football, it is baffling that the German's have such a poor record in this tournament. But as with all German teams, this side cannot be discounted and are certainly dark horses for this tournament.
This side, led by former international Horst Hrubesch who is in temporary charge until the end of the tournament, boast a number of players who feature regularly in the Bundesliga. Certainly the likes of Manuel Neuer, Andreas Beck, Dennis Aogo, Sami Khedira, Marko Marin, and Mesut Ozil are highly talented, yet experienced prospects who could cause a stir in this tournament.
Everyone's Watching: Mesut Ozil—Though his season may have ended in disappointment with defeat in the UEFA Cup final with Werder Bremen, overall it was a rewarding breakthrough campaign for the diminutive German international. A bright and classy playmaker, Ozil could be one of the tournaments shining lights.
Most Important Player: Andreas Beck—A classy defender who has enjoyed a prosperous campaign with Hoffenheim, and has received full international honours, and is a vital component of his team's defence.
One For The Scouts: Marko Marin—A German international who is regarded as one of its brightest attacking prospects. Standing 5'7", he is capable of terrorising any defences with his mazy runs, and could well prove to be a handful throughout the tournament.
Chances: Outsiders certainly—their team is talented, but much will depend on their match against England which could make or break their campaign.
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