10 Players to Watch at the 2017 UEFA European Under-21 Championship

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2017

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 15: Serge Gnabry of Germany looks on during the International Friendly match between Italy and Germany at Giuseppe-Meazza-Stadion on November 15, 2016 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
TF-Images/Getty Images

The UEFA Under-21 European Championship kicks off in Poland on Friday, and the cream of the Continent's starlets will be taking centre stage, hoping to help their nations to glory.

With an expanded tournament this time out, featuring 12 teams, there are some outrageously talented young players set to be on show, many of whom are already senior internationals or key players at club level.

This is a must-watch competition to see the stars of tomorrow—and in some cases, already the stars of today—and we've identified 10 players to look out for in the two-week event.

These aren't necessarily the best players from each team, but rather ones who stand out as a result of needing to impress, hitting great form or flying under the radar over the last year.

Of course the likes of UEFA Champions League final goalscorer Marco Asensio bears watching, or Paris Saint-Germain's €25 million January signing Goncalo Guedes, but these 10 have other reasons to make them worth watching in addition to outrageous footballing talent.

Players are listed only in order of which group their nation is in.

     

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Jordan Pickford, England

England's goalkeeper Jordan Pickford makes a save during a training session at Tottenham Hotspur's training ground in north London on November 14, 2016 ahead of their international friendly football match against Spain on November 15. / AFP / OLLY GREENWO
OLLY GREENWOOD/Getty Images

Thursday: complete a £30 million transfer. Friday: open the U-21 Euros against Sweden.

It's a big week for Pickford, who has moved from Sunderland to Everton, and he now faces something new: the massive scrutiny that comes as standard with a big-money move.

He's an excellent shot-stopper who excelled in a terrible team, but no longer will he be seen as an up-and-coming starlet, but a 23-year-old who is the third most expensive 'keeper in the history of the game.

It's a lot to live up to, but mental resilience is vital for a No. 1, and he'll have to not only play well, but he'll also have to bounce back and show self-belief if, and when, things go wrong.

      

Albert Rusnak, Slovakia

Ronald Zak/Associated Press

From the well-known to the less-so, but 22-year-old Albert Rusnak is already making waves—if you happen to be watching his team, his games, his league.

The midfielder plays in MLS with Real Salt Lake, usually as part of a three-man centre of the park in a 4-3-3, but occasionally filtering to left midfield in a 4-2-3-1.

He's good at breaking into space from deep, isn't afraid to carry the ball in his languid, but direct, style and has a great cross on him from deeper areas, rather than near the byline. Rusnak is right-footed but has no issue playing through balls or shooting from range on his left and has the ability to make a big impact at the tournament for his team.

The Czech-born attacker has five assists already this season, the most in RSL's squad and only one off top spot in all MLS, as well as three goals to his name.

      

Renato Sanches, Portugal

FUNCHAL, PORTUGAL - MARCH 28:  PortugalÕs midfielder Renato Sanches in action during the International Friendly match between Portugal and Sweden at Estadio dos Barreiros on March 28, 2017 in Funchal (Madeira), Portugal.  (Photo by Gualter Fatia/Getty Ima
Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

The Portuguese squad carries five fully capped players, Renato Sanches being one of them.

Everybody knows who he is by now; a breakout season with Benfica ended with Sanches sealing a €35 million move to Bayern Munich, becoming the youngest-ever player at a tournament with his national team, winning Euro 2016 and lifting the Young Player of the Tournament award.

Not bad—except the momentum has stalled in 2016/17.

Sanches featured for just 600 minutes in the Bundesliga with Bayern this term, prompting talk of a summer exit in the German media, as reported by Bild (h/t MEN).

After a year of not playing, how will Sanches step up to being a key member of a team again? As a youngster—and he's still only 19, one of just 17 teenagers at the Under-21 Euros—it's natural to have peaks and troughs in a career, but even so, Sanches' has been an absolute rollercoaster.

He's never played for the under-21s, despite being a European Championship winner with the seniors. It's an interesting time in his short career to see how he handles it all.

       

Marko Grujic, Serbia

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Marko Grujic of Liverpool signals during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield on September 24, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Julian Finney/Getty Images

There was plenty of appreciation and optimism at Liverpool when they signed Marko Grujic, and his pre-season performances suggested there was great reason for that.

An injury early into 2016/17, however, meant he quickly fell behind in Reds boss Jurgen Klopp's order of preference—and with fewer matches, and thus less need to rotate, the midfielder never established himself with any frequency.

There are high hopes Grujic becomes the dominant midfielder he looks capable of being, and getting regular game time is a big part of that.

He's powerful, has good aerial ability, has a fine range of passing and can break forward from deep into the front line with tremendous effect; he'll be key to Serbia's hopes of progression in a tough group.

       

Jorge Mere, Spain

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 27:  Mere' Jorge of Spain in action during the international friendly match between Italy U21 and Spain U21 at Olimpico Stadium on March 27, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

Asensio, Jose Gaya, Saul—in truth we could pick 10 from Spain's squad to watch, and it still wouldn't cover all the ones to keep an eye on.

But with Gerard Pique set to retire from international duty after the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Sergio Ramos turning 32 next season, there will be spaces opening up in defence in the seniors, and one of the two under-21 centre-backs could well step up.

Jesus Vallejo is the better known, perhaps—starring on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt; set for a return to Real Madrid for 2017/18—but Jorge Mere is a genuine star in the making, a hugely talented all-round defender who has played a big part in Sporting Gijon's team over the past two seasons.

They've just been relegated, and he has a €25 million release clause—that's nothing in today's market—and at the Euros, he'll have the chance to show just why any club should be willing to splash out on him.

      

Carlos Soler, Spain

VITORIA-GASTEIZ, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 25:  Carlos Soler of Valencia CF celebrates after scoring goal during the La Liga match between Deportivo Alaves and Valencia CF at Mendizorroza stadium on February 25, 2017 in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manu
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

In all likelihood, Soler won't start the tournament in the team; he's one of the youngest in the Spain squad and the only player uncapped at this level—but his rise this season at Valencia has shown he's just as good, and potentially better, than others who will initially be involved.

A cool, composed and utterly capable midfielder who controls play in the centre, Soler loves to pick up possession and run straight into space, committing opponents to move out of position and threading passes into team-mates to exploit those gaps.

He breaks into the area with regularity, is happy to shoot on sight and was a fixture in Los Che's XI in the second half of the season, such was his progress.

Look for him to be an impact sub in the group stage, but with every chance of winning a regular spot as the tournament goes on...if Spain progress, which they should.

     

Patrik Schick, Czech Republic

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM - JUNE 05:  Patrik Schick of the Czech Republic in action during the International Friendly match between Belgium and Czech Republic at Stade Roi Baudouis on June 5, 2017 in Brussels, Belgium.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

The 21-year-old forward Patrik Schick hit 11 goals from 14 starts and 18 sub appearances this season—in Serie A, with Sampdoria. His impressive form and a goal every 137 minutes has earned him a €30 million move to Juventus, pending a medical.

He may return to Samp on loan, stay at Juve or head elsewhere for 2017/18, but the young forward's talents should be on show with regularity regardless.

Schick will shoot from range, but he gets himself beyond the last defender into the area with regularity and has impressive link-up play.

The Czech Republic face a mammoth task to finish in the top two, and even that might not be good enough for a semi-final berth, but he'll be key to their hopes.

      

Serge Gnabry, Germany

MILAN, ITALY - NOVEMBER 15:  Serge Gnabry of Germany looks on during the International Friendly Match between Italy and Germany at Giuseppe Meazza Stadium on November 15, 2016 in Milan, .  (Photo by Boris Streubel/Getty Images)
Boris Streubel/Getty Images

For Germany—like Spain and Portugal, with a plethora to choose from—we've turned to B/R's Bundesliga specialist, Lars Pollmann, to pick out the one to watch.

His choice of Serge Gnabry is a big one: The big clubs have been watching him, and it's time for the winger to show why hopes remain so high over him.

"Once deemed to not be 'at the level' required to play for West Bromwich Albion, Gnabry has earned a move to Bayern Munich after a meteoric rise that started at the 2016 Olympic football tournament.

"The speedy winger is one of the key players in Stefan Kuntz's side and expected to chip in with a goal or two. These Euros are also an important opportunity for the former Arsenal man to lay claim to the throne of ageing Franck Ribery at Bayern."

Gnabry could be a star at senior level before long—if he impacts at Bayern. Like Pickford, the pressure will be on him now in his first spotlight moment after a big-money move.

       

Gigi Donnarumma, Italy

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 28:  Gianluigi Donnarumma of Italy in action during the international friendly match between Netherlands and Italy at Amsterdam Arena on March 28, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Onto Italy now and our final two herald from that nation, starting with goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma.

He's the most in-demand stopper in world football and just 18 years of age...and has just told AC Milan he won't renew his contract with them, despite their apparent ongoing preparations to rise once more in Italian football.

Real Madrid, PSG, Manchester United and every other team in need of a world class No. 1 will be in the hunt for him—this summer for an astronomical fee or next year for free—and in truth, it doesn't matter if he has a stinker at the U-21 Euros, because they'll still want him.

But if Serie A isn't on your weekend watch list, and you want to know why all the fuss exists...just tune in to see why he's already Gigi Buffon's heir-in-waiting with four senior caps to his name at 18.

       

Domenico Berardi, Italy

EMPOLI, ITALY - MAY 31:  Domenico Berardi of Italy in action during the international friendy match played between Italy and San Marino at Stadio Carlo Castellani on May 31, 2017 in Empoli, Italy.  (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Claudio Villa/Getty Images

Finally, a front man for the Azzurrini, picked out by Italian football expert Jack Rathborn, of the Mirror and ESPN, who tells us just why Berardi is critical for his nation's hopes:

"Just 22 years old and he has already scored 43 goals in Serie A; with newfound money in Milan, Roma's exciting project and Napoli cementing themselves as a dominant force, the Sassuolo striker could secure a well-overdue move to one of Italy's giants off the back of this tournament."

He is, indeed, Sassuolo's all-time top scorer, such has been his immediate impact after breaking through to the first team scene in 2012/13.

A tempestuous individual at times, Berardi combines great technique with an iron mentality to win, and that resilience as much as his on-the-ball quality seems set to take him high in the game.

Quotes obtained firsthand unless stated.

Facebook.com/karlmatchett.football

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