UEFA Under 21 Championship Preview

Written by Square in the Air

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The Under-21 European Championship kicks off Wednesday, and for England supporters it might just be a chance to witness one of the most rare sights on a football pitch – the Three Lions hoisting aloft a trophy victorious. The Czech Republic are hosts to the 20th edition of the tournament that has seen England crash out of the group stages more times than most would care to remember.
A buoyant mood in manager Gareth Southgate’s England camp has lifted the spirits of fans, however, who can point to an impressive qualification campaign, and a squad full of premier league experience, as reasons why this time it will be different. The U-21s Euros is a fantastic tournament for football fans to savour. Just two groups of four teams will feed directly into a semi-final and final. No matches against minnows to mask weaknesses or inflate expectations; the newly-expanded Senior competition could learn a thing or two. England are in Group B, alongside a dangerous Portuguese side, tournament stalwarts Italy and a talented yet unfancied Swedish team.

Southgate’s men will open play on Thursday against Portugal in what is likely to be the key match of the group. Lose it, and Danny Ings, James Ward-Prowse and John Stone will need fortune on their side to progress to the knock-out stages. The Portugal side is littered with talent and breezed through qualification by winning all eight of their matches, before dumping Holland out of the tournament altogether in the two-legged playoffs – scoring seven times in the process. England will need the strike force of Tottenham’s Harry Kane, West Brom’s Saido Berahino and Burnley’s Ings to hit the ground running to be in with a shout, but an early goal could spur on this youthful side. Many will be looking for less well-known names – to some at least – such as Chelsea’s latest youth team gems,

Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathaniel Chabolah, to come of age at this tournament and the two midfielders will need to work together with Tottenham’s Tom Carroll and Alex Pritchard, with help from Southampton’s Ward-Prowse, to do so. Once Portugal has been dealt with, Southgate faces a tricky tie against Sweden on Sunday. A positive result will set up a do or die tie against an Italian side who have won this competition a frightening five times, and reached the final twice more. Although Italy haven’t lifted the trophy in a decade, they narrowly lost the 2013 final to a Spain side containing player of the tournament Juan Mata. Progress to the semi-finals as group winners will likely mean avoiding the heavily favoured Germans and instead facing the less imposing sight of either Denmark, Serbia or the hosts. Germany has an imposing squad on paper, and are rightfully outright tournament favourites. Champions League winner Marc-Andrew Stegen is in goal, and Emre Can of Liverpool and Arsenal’s Serge Gnabry will be expected to produce the goods under Bundesliga wonderkid Kevin Volland of Hoffenheim who captains the side.

Without the senior England side on show, the youngsters have a golden chance to shine and enhance their budding reputations. If Southgate could have put together his strongest team – adding the likes of Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley and Phil Jones – England would be under real pressure to win the tournament. Without that overt pressure, England has space to breathe.

The core group of players who went through qualification together should be ready to explode onto the pitch against Portugal. This may just turn out to be a glorious summer of football after all.

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