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.
4. Chris Smalling (ENGLAND)
It is incomprehensible to think that just three years ago, Chris Smalling was turning out for lowly Maidstone United in the seventh tier of English football. In the season just gone, he was playing for Manchester United, and featured in games against Chelsea, Manchester City, Marseille and Arsenal. His journey from Maidstone United to Premier League champion is one that all aspiring footballers should draw inspiration from. On the international scene, Smalling has been called up by senior boss Fabio Capello on one occasion but was an unused substitute. He has represented the U21s 11 times, and netted his first and only goal in the first leg of the playoff tie against Romania back in October last year. He has forged an effective partnership with Phil Jones at the heart of England’s defence – a partnership that has been likened to that of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand at senior level.
5. Jack Rodwell (ENGLAND)
Another English talent on show at this summer’s tournament is Jack Rodwell – Everton’s holding midfielder who has been linked with a move to Manchester United for the last two years. Although yet to earn a senior call-up, Rodwell is one of the most-capped players at this level, with 15 caps and 2 goals. He has represented his country at all youth-levels and has often been captain – although that responsibility is likely to go Michael Mancienne this time around. The midfielder seems to have been around for a while but he has only recently turned 20, and he will see this tournament as his opportunity to impress Fabio Capello – especially with next summer’s Euro 2012 in mind. Much like Javi Martinez, Rodwell isn’t a prolific goalscorer but he has bags of energy, good passing range and positional sense.
6. Gylfi Sigurdsson (ICELAND)
Sigurdsson is starting to show real promise since joining Hoffenheim from Reading last year. During his time at Reading, the Icelandic had spent loan spells at Shrewsbury United and Crewe Alexandra, before finally getting his first-team opportunities in the 2009-10 season. Sigurdsson made a name for himself as a scorer of great goals, and finished the campaign with 21 goals from 44 games – not bad for a midfielder! He was reportedly on the radars of Manchester United and Liverpool, but instead he joined Hoffenheim late in the autumn transfer window for £7M. A few weeks ago, he was named Hoffenheim’s player of the season by their supporters, having managed to score 10 goals in just 13 games. Scotland fans may remember Sigurdsson from the U21 play-off second leg when he netted two magnificent strikes to ensure Iceland’s place in this competition. He is certainly one to watch for the future.
7. Vaclav Kadlec (CZECH REPUBLIC)
Although his strike partner Tomas Pekhart was the competition’s top goal scorer in the qualification stages, with 9, it is Vaclav Kadlec who should really be considered Czech Republic’s star man. At the tender age of 19, Kadlec has already made his debut for the senior team, getting on the score sheet in the process. He is the youngest ever goal scorer for both the Czech Republic national team, and his club side Sparta Prague, for whom he scored at the age of 16. Again, he is being tracked by Premier League clubs – namely Liverpool and Chelsea. Most probably know him as a ‘wonderkid’ on Football Manager, but he more than lives up to that label in reality. He has great pace, movement and is lethal in front of goal, and has been described in his home country as the best natural talent since Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky. He won ‘Czech Talent of the Year’ in 2010.
8. Xherdan Shaqiri (SWITZERLAND)
The likes of Germany, Spain and Belgium are currently producing real quality young players, but Switzerland should not be overlooked. They won the U17 World Cup in 2009, and many of the same players from that tournament will be in Denmark this summer. In fact, six of the players in this squad have already made their senior debuts for Switzerland. None are more impressive than Xherdan Shaqiri, the FC Basel winger who has been tipped for great things. Still only 19, he has 11 senior caps and has scored once – a 25 yard screamer against England in a European Championships qualifier last year. There’s plenty more where that came from too, just a quick look on YouTube tells you this guy is a star in the making. Not only as he got an eye for goal, Shaqiri is fantastic with the ball at his feet and likes to run at his marker. He may stay with Basel for a short while but don’t be surprised to see him at a top European club in the near future.
9. Yevhen Konoplyanka (UKRAINE)
Ukraine manager Oleh Blokhin has released four players from the senior squad to let them join up with the U21s, and Yevhen Konoplyanka is one of them. Along with Andriy Yarmolenko, Yaroslav Rakitskiy and Taras Stepanenko, he is in a group of players regarded as the future of Ukrainian football. Konoplyanka is currently on the books of Dnipro, and can play on either the right or left hand side, as well as through the middle just behind the striker. While comparisons with Lionel Messi may be a little off the mark, and premature, he does resemble the Argentine. He is comfortable using both feet, loves to beat defenders and has great vision and awareness. The 21 year old has plenty of time left to improve and there will undoubtedly be scouts from big European clubs keeping an eye on him. He already has two goals from 8 full international appearances.
10. Christian Eriksen (DENMARK)
Most would have already heard of this Danish attacking midfielder, currently contracted to Ajax. Eriksen was the youngest player at the 2010 World Cup and has an army of clubs tracking his progress. Martin Jol, who managed Eriksen at the Dutch club, compared him to Wesley Sneijder, and he was named the Eredevisie’s Talent of the Year. He previously had trials at Barcelona and Chelsea but chose Ajax instead, stating “my first step should not be too big”. The youngster recently starred in a 2-1 friendly defeat to England, and won the man of the match award, drawing praise from the English media as well as Rio Ferdinand, via Twitter. He is Denmark’s youngest ever goalscorer in European qualification and the senior coach agreed to let Eriksen participate in this tournament to further enhance his development. The Dane is fast becoming one of Ajax’s most important players, and scored 7 goals in 20 starts last season. He is a fantastic passer of the ball and his delivery from wide areas is exceptional.