European U21s Championship preview
Posted 12th May 2009
With the European U17s Championship nearing its conclusion, attention will soon shift to the young players even closer to football stardom. Netherlands, winners of the last two tournaments, did not make it through qualifying and there are some surprise names alongside the expected qualifiers.
Multiple winners Spain, Italy and England are joined by Germany (who have surprisingly not contested any finals as a unified nation) and Serbia, who as runners-up in two of the last three finals can be considered one of the major nations at this level. The other qualifiers are Finland, Belarus and Sweden, the hosts.
The eight finalists each had to progress from 10 groups before winning a two-legged play-off. Italy, England and Spain were the most impressive teams in qualifying, as all of them arrive in Sweden unbeaten in qualifying.
Five-time winners Italy were slightly disappointing in failing to progress from the group stage last time around, but they will start this campaign as the team to beat.
The Azzurrini have a fine tradition of supplying the full team with players and this current crop of youngsters should be no different. Sebastian Giovinco, Claudio Marchisio and Robert Acquafresca have already made impacts in Serie A and could soon graduate to the national set-up.
England squeezed past Wales in the qualifying play-offs and have not had ideal preparation, losing to Ecuador in February and getting a bit of a lesson from France (who lost out to Germany in the play-offs) last time out.
Stuart Pearce's outfit has plenty of experience, although the squad does have a Championship-orientated look about it. They will view this tournament as unfinished business, having lost to the Dutch 13-12 in a semi final shootout in 2007. Another last four appearance would be a good achievement.
Germany have the ability to end their U21 championship duck and in Rouwen Hennings have the joint leading goalscorer in qualification. However, they were recently hammered 4-0 by the Dutch and were disappointing in a 1-1 draw with outsiders Belarus, so I expect their wait for this trophy to go on.
Serbia should again feature in the latter stages and in Manchester United winger and full team regular Zoran Tosic, they could have the player of the tournament. They will be tough to beat and should progress with Italy from Group A.
Spain are another well-fancied team to struggle recently, having drawn 0-0 with Sweden and been defeated 2-1 by Ireland. Most eyes will be on Bojan Krkic, but it will require a good all-round effort for Spain's juniors to mach the full team's achievement in becoming Europe's best team.
With perhaps the two best teams in Europe (France and Netherlands) absent, this tournament is wide open. With regards to tournament betting, I will keep a close eye on Group A's second fixture, between Italy and Serbia, as these are teams I will be looking to provide value in the developing winner's market.