Top 10 Players to Watch in UEFA’s U21 European Championship

There may not be a World Cup or European Championship this summer, but for those missing the football bug during the off-season, cast your eyes on the Under-21 European Championship, which kicks off Saturday, June 11 (readers in the United States can watch the games on ESPN3.com, including Spain vs England on Sunday at 2:35pm ET).

In your preparation for the tournament, here are ten players to watch out for:

1. David De Gea (SPAIN)

The goalkeeper was included in Vincent del Bosque’s provisional squad for the 2010 World Cup but just missed out on the final 23, with Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Victor Valdes being chosen instead. De Gea is however seen by most in Spain as the natural successor to Iker Casillas. De Gea first came to prominence in 2009 when he replaced Sergio Asenjo as Atletico Madrid’s number one. He gave away, and saved a penalty in his La Liga debut and his consistently good performances have caught the eye of Sir Alex Ferguson, who confirmed his interest to bring De Gea to Old Trafford last month. De Gea, dubbed ’the new Edwin Van Der Sar’ even before Manchester United’s interest, also helped Atletico lift the UEFA Super Cup in 2010 by saving a Diego Milito penalty. The Spaniard has enjoyed another fine season and will be looking to bring his form into this tournament, insisting the constant speculation about his future will not impact on his performances.

2. Juan Manuel Mata (SPAIN)

Mata will be one of the oldest players participating in this year’s U21 tournament, aged 23. UEFA rules stipulate that players born after the 1st January 1988 are eligible, so the Valencia star just squeezes in. A reported target for Liverpool, Mata played 20 minutes of Spain’s victorious 2010 World Cup campaign, and boasts 11 senior caps for the World champions – scoring 4 goals in the process. He joined Valencia from Real Madrid back in 2007, and with Valencia’s current financial difficulties, he could be on the move again this summer. Mata will be aware of the many scouts sure to be in attendance and will be looking to impress should he leave Los Che – however he does face stiff competition with Jeffren, Diego Capel, Ander Herrera and Iker Muniain all vying for a place in the wide areas.

3. Javi Martinez (SPAIN)

Like his team-mate Mata, Javi Martinez was also part of Spain’s 2010 World Cup squad, and also played 20 minutes of the tournament, replacing Xabi Alonso in their group match against Chile. Martinez is one of the best young players in La Liga, and his club Athletic Bilbao must have seen something in the then-17 year old midfielder – paying Osasuna e6,000,000 for his services. Martinez has been Bilbao’s midfield engine room since 2006 and has never had a season where he has played less than 30 games. He isn’t a goal-grabbing midfielder, but he will offer the Spanish U21s protection and insurance in front of the back four, allowing the likes of Thiago Alcantara and Juan Mata to attack. Martinez continues to be linked to a move away from Bilbao despite extending his contract with Athletic until 2016 just a few weeks ago. The inclusion of both Martinez and Mata, who are now full senior internationals, does prompt England fans to question why Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll weren’t taken to Denmark to represent their country.

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