UEFA: Under-21 Championship Preview
Germany may have won the most recent edition of the UEFA U-21 Championships, easily beating England 4-0 in Sweden two years ago, but that will now count for nothing as their current crop of youngsters failed to qualify for this year’s tournament in Denmark which begins on Saturday. There is no representation from record title holders Italy either as they were knocked out at the Play-Off stage by Belarus. With a couple of experienced nations such as England and Spain mixing it with relative newcomers such as Belarus and Ukraine, this year’s competition should be every bit as exciting as the last one. Here is Stoppage Time – International Football Blog’s preview of the 18th edition of the UEFA U-21 Championships.
BELARUS reached their third tournament finals after finishing behind Scotland on goal difference in the first qualifying stage and then dumping out the Italians 3-2 on aggregate in the Play-Offs. In two previous attempts the Belarussians have never got beyond the group phase, finishing third in their group in 2004 behind eventual champions Italy and bottom in 2009. Pavel Nekhaychik has gained a lot of experience at home and abroad with BATE Borisov and could be a player to watch.
DENMARK are the tournament hosts, which allowed them automatic qualification into this year’s competition, and will compete in their fifth UEFA u-21 finals. They last featured in this tournament five years go in Portugal where they failed to progress beyond the group stage. Denmark’s best finish came in 1992 where they reached the semi-finals only to lose out to eventual winners Italy. Christian Eriksen, who has been targeted by a number of top European clubs in recent months, has been highlighted as the one to watch for the Danes .
ICELAND are welcome newcomers to this tournament having never qualified for the finals before. In their first qualifying stage group they finished second behind Czech Republic by six points but nevertheless reached the Play-Offs having finished ahead of the German team. The Iceland side showed their Scottish counterparts what they could do in the Play-Offs by defeating them 2-1 home and away to chalk up a 4-2 aggregate success to send them to Denmark. Hoffenheim star Gylfi Sigurðsson, who was so instrumental in Iceland’s Play-Off success, is the leading man to watch out for.
SWITZERLAND, like group rivals Belarus, have reached the finals for the third time and they would like to replicate their 2002 performance where, as tournament hosts, they reached the last four. They reached Denmark by finishing top of Group 2 in the first qualifying stage, a convincing four points ahead of Turkey, and followed that up by putting five goals past Sweden in the Play-Off round. A marvellous 4-1 first leg victory at home was coupled with a 1-1 draw in the away leg and allowed the Swiss their passage into their first finals since 2004. Fabien Frei has chipped in with some crucial goals throughout qualifying and could make a telling contribution in this year’s finals.
CZECH REPUBLIC have qualified for their fifth tournament finals and have realistic hopes of going far in the competition. The Czechs are two-time finalists and have experienced the highs and lows that the competition can bring; in 2000 they lost out to Italy in the final but two years later won the competition for the first time by defeating France on penalties. They qualified this time around by topping their group from Iceland in the first qualifying round before emphatically beating Greece in the Play-Offs scoring five goals without reply. Tomáš Pekhart’s goals during the qualifying campaign stand him out as one to watch in Denmark.
ENGLAND, along with group rivals Spain, are the most experienced nations in this competition as they will be making their eleventh appearance at a tournament finals. England qualified having reached the Play-Off stage by coming second in Group 9 behind Greece and then overcoming Romania by the odd goal in three in a tough two-legged encounter which sealed their participation in Denmark. England have won this tournament twice but a long time has passed since their back-to-back successes in 1982 and 1984 and they will have to put their disappointment of losing the most recent final two years ago against a rampant German side firmly behind them. Chelsea FC player Daniel Sturridge could be an important source of goals for England after enjoying a fruitful spell on loan at Bolton Wanderers.
SPAIN, similarly to England, is a two-time champions and are most people’s favourites to win the competition. Spain’s named was etched onto the trophy in 1986 after defeating Italy on penalties after a two-legged final, and 1998 after a narrow 1-0 victory over Greece. Having finished second in Group 4 just two points behind the Netherlands, Spain won their Play-Off tie 5-1 against Croatia to reach their eleventh finals. There are a few names who one could pick from the Spanish team, such is the experience that they have accumulated with their club sides, but if pressed to name one it would have to be Bojan Krkić who has won a glittering array of titles with FC Barcelona at the ripe old age of 20.
UKRAINE are making their second appearance in this tournament having made their maiden adventure just five years ago in Portugal where they reached the final but lost out to a superior Netherlands team. The Ukrainians qualified by scraping past Belgium and France into first place in qualifying first stage Group 8 before going on to gain revenge over the Dutch by winning on away goals following an eventful two-legged tie which ended up 3-3. Team captain Taras Stepanenko will be a key figure for the Ukrainians especially with the experience he has gained already with club side Shakhtar Donetsk with whom he won a league and cup double in his maiden season.