Tomorrow will see the UEFA Under – 21 Championships kick off in Israel, and promises to display some of the hottest young talent in Europe. The last tournament, in 2011 in Denmark, gave us our first taste of players like David De Gea, Xherdan Shaquiri and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson on an international stage. Since then, all three have moved to the league champions in their respective leagues. The players who impress at this year’s event are likely to move on to bigger clubs in the coming years, with a plethora or scouts from the world’s top clubs having traveled to Israel this week to eye potential targets. In preparation for the finals, I have compiled a list of the 20 players to watch over the next fortnight.
The Bayern Munich midfielder is making his U-21 debut at this tournament, despite being touted as one of the brightest talents in a league brimming with potential superstars. Having captained the U-17 squad in 2011, Can (below) was the outstanding player in the squad, and won the 2011 U-17 Fritz Walter medal awarded to the most promising youth talent in Germany. Tottenham Hotspurs’ assistant manager, Steffan Frund, who managed Can at youth level, called him “the most complete player I have ever seen”. This is a huge tournament for the 19-year-old, who is expected to make a big impression on the tournament to help break into the all-conquering Bayern Munich side next season.
The Borussia Mönchengladbach forward is the squad’s second highest scorer behind Lewis Holtby, and looks to build upon the form which saw him come into the ‘Gladbach squad towards the end of the season. Standing at 6’5″, Mlapa provides an obvious aerial threat, but is impressive with the ball at his feet also. Having scored 8 goals in 11 appearances in the qualifiers, including hat tricks against San Marino and Greece, Mlapa will be the main attacking threat in this impressive young German side.
One of my personal favourite players to watch, Herrmann has been the star of a Borussia Monchengladbach team in desperate need of a talisman after the departure of Marco Reus to Borussia Dortmund in January 2012. While quick to dismiss any likeness to Reus, Herrmann has been that talisman in ‘Gladbach’s midfield this season. Scoring six goals and assisting five more in 30 starts this season, Herrmann’s performances were rewarded with a call-up to the Senior National Team, although he was an unused sub for their game against Kazakhstan. A remarkable talent, Herrmann is one of many players who are likely to move on to a bigger club if they play to their usual standards at this tournament.
One of the more established members of the squad, Ginter was at the heart of Freiburg’s defense this season as the Black Forest side finished fifth with the third best defensive record in the league, behind Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich. Another winner of the Fritz Walter medal, Ginter is widely believed to be the next centre back for the senior National Side after the 2014 World Cup.
Ricardo Van Rhijn:
One of the most established players on the list, Van Rhijn is the starting right back for Ajax, and has played six times for the Dutch national side. A quick, tall right back, Van Rhijn has all the makings of the perfect right back, and has attracted attention from almost every top club in Europe, and these Championships could well be the catalyst for a move abroad.
Van Rhijn’s left side counterpart, Blind is the starting left back for both Ajax and the Dutch U-21s also. Having won Ajax’s player of the year, seeing off competition from the likes of Siem de Jong, Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen and more, there is a huge hype surrounding this player. Will be integral to any success The Netherlands have in Israel, Blind will have to be on top of his game to deal with the likes of Patrick Herrmann and Denis Cheryshev in Group B.
Tonny Trindade de Vilhena
One of the younger players in the tournament at age 18, Vilhena has climbed the ranks of the Dutch international system. Part of the side which won the 2011 U-17 Championships, he has since played for the U-19s, U-21s and was called up for the Dutch senior side’s preliminary squad in March. Scored four times in his debut season in the Eredivisie, Vilhena is highly rated by all who have seen him play. This could well be his breakthrough tournament.
Yet another Mönchengladbach player (Not biased, I swear!) playing his final youth tournament, many of you will know Nordtveit from his days at Arsenal. Has seen much more regular game time at ‘Gladbach since Michael Bradley’s departure to Serie A, and is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Able to play anywhere through the middle, he is one of the more versatile players on the list, and will be a key figure in keeping Norway’s midfield balanced.
The oldest player at the tournament, Illaramendi has been a feature for Spain’s youth sides since 2007. His capabilities in defense and distribution are certain to attract attention from bigger clubs, and will be key to Spain’s title ambitions in this tournament. One of Real Sociedad’s best players in their outstanding season, the defensive midfielder is one of the hottest talents in Europe at the moment.
The Real Madrid man established himself as one of the world’s most impressive young talents this past season while at Bayer Leverkusen. He was voted the Bundesliga’s third best right back (behind Lahm and Uchida), and his performances were enough to convince Real Madrid to pay his €6.5m buy-back-clause after selling him to Leverkusen in 2012. Should maintain his form going into the Championships.
Another established player in the tournament, Munian has been capped by the senior side and is making his second appearance in an U-21 Championship. He has made 43 appearances in total this season for Athletic Bilbao, and is travelling to Israel with a substantial reputation above his head.
The Real Madrid winger (Below) will be looking to have an especially impressive tournament as he looks to break into a fiercely competitive Real Madrid squad following his call up from the B team in which he played over 100 matches. Capped once by the senior side, the 22 -year-old is well regarded by the Russian Football Federation, despite having never played a La Liga game for Madrid. Should be one of the outstanding players from Group B.
Taras Burlak: The Lokomotiv centre back captains the Russian U-21 side, and is a rock at the heart of their defense. Having begun to break into the Lokomotiv side this season, Burlak has some invaluable experience in the Russian league, and is notably strong in the tackle and in the air. He will unite the Russian back-line, and will make life very difficult for the opposing strikers.
A player who gained significant notoriety during Watford’s final game of the season, Chalobah has already impressed his parent club Chelsea, to whom he will return next season barring another loan move. He will be looking to play as pivotal a role for England as he did for Watford in a bid to break into the Chelsea squad.
Clyne joined Southampton from Crystal Palace last year having been one of the best players in the Championship since breaking into Palace’s side in 2011, and had a good debut season in the Premier League this year. Can be a vital player for England if he really turns it on.
Another ‘veteran’ of the U-21 scene, McEachran is one of 32 loanees whose parent club is Chelsea looking to make an impression on José Mourinho, and will surely be keen to impress at this year’s event. Voted Middlesborough’s young player of the year last season, McEachran could be as pivotal in the middle of England’s midfield trio as he is for Middlesborough.
The Liverpool man has endured a torrid time since his move from Roma, and a good pre-season with Italy could set him back on the goal-scoring path he was on before he was blighted by injury. Having scored nine goals at underage level, including one against Hungary in the qualifiers, Borini is more than capable of lighting up the tournament if he strikes form.
The Roma frontman has performed well this season, scoring 6 goals in a season which has seen Totti, Osvaldo and Lamela gain most of the plaudits from the Stadio Olimpico. He is one of Italy’s top scorers at under-19 level, netting 16 times in 14 games. A player whose stock is constantly rising both in Italy and abroad, Destro could cement a regular place in Roma’s potent attack if he performs well at the tournament.
Possibly the most talked-about young Italian player aside from Mario Balotelli, Veratti is seen as the future off Italy’s midfield once Andrea Pirlo moves on from international duty. He had the fourth-highest pass accuracy of any midfielder in Ligue 1 this season at 90%. He could well take the tournament by storm if he recreates any sort of the form he had at PSG this season.
The Maccabi Haifa man is seen as the future of Israel’s midfield, and has played seven times for the senior side. A creative midfielder who distributes the ball well to the attackers, Golasa will be paramount to any potential Israeli success. He will be keen to impress here to secure a move away from Maccabi, after a proposed move to Lazio broke down in 2010.
The 6’5″ midfielder is a giant in the Israeli midfield in both senses of the word. A box-to-box midfielder, Biton (below) is neither shy in the tackle or in attack, and as scored 12 goals for FC Ashdod since his debut. Will more than likely move on after the Summer, having been turned down after a trial at Manchester City.
(Photos credit: UEFA.com)