Five things to watch for at the European Under-21 Championship
Five things to watch for when the 2015 European Under-21 Championship kicks off on Wednesday in the Czech Republic.
1. England should be taken seriously this time
The rule of thumb has generally been that England's Under-21 team should only be taken as seriously as it takes itself. Recent shots at this tournament have appeared half-hearted at best -- in 2013 Stuart Pearce's team came home without a point from their campaign in Israel; they had also bowed out at the group stage in Denmark two years previously. On neither occasion were their chances helped by eligible players, with experience of the senior set-up, being withheld from selection. There was a clear sense, too, that those who did answer the call were not treating it with due respect.
There is a more businesslike feel to things under current coach Gareth Southgate, though, and a stronger look to the squad. A scan down the class of 2013 shows a number of subsequent underachievers at club level, but Southgate can call on Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings for goals and there is plenty to enjoy further back as well. Calum Chambers and John Stones should both line up in defence and the midfield selection is filled with smart technicians such as James Ward-Prowse, Will Hughes, Alex Pritchard and Chelsea's much-hyped Ruben Loftus-Cheek. A team that seems to lack egos has prepared well and inflicted a rare defeat on the fancied Germans in Middlesbrough three months ago. Italy, Portugal and Sweden are tough opponents to negotiate in Group B, but this feels like England's best chance to make an impact in this competition since 2009, when they lost 4-0 to Germany in the final. Perhaps a little more seriousness all round is about to pay dividends.
2. Germany's experience could prove vital
Another youth tournament, another year in which Germany's conveyer belt of talent is rightly held up for all to admire -- although the first step for Horst Hrubesch's team will be to improve upon their surprising group stage exit of 2013.
They should be able to do that, even though they face some serious obstacles in Group A. If the tournament-winning class of 2009 -- featuring Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Mats Hummels and company -- are now common currency when referring to Germany's pathway to the top, there may now be a group of worthy successors. Among seven of Hrubesch's squad to have experience in Germany's senior setup is the Barcelona goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen; a typically progressive, fluid midfield includes the excellent Schalke schemer Max Meyer and Wolfsburg's Maximilian Arnold, who featured heavily for the DFB-Pokal winners last season. Liverpool's Emre Can should also revert to a position in the centre of the park after playing much of his domestic football in defence, and Arsenal winger Serge Gnabry is among those called up despite a 2014-15 season largely derailed by injury.
Germany's squad has more top-level experience than most and it may be a long time before another UEFA Under-21 Championship contender fields a goalkeeper who has just won the Champions League. It should be brought to bear in the next two weeks -- the mistakes of 2013 are unlikely to be made twice.
3. Can Serbia pull off a double success?
When Serbia's Under-21s walk out to face Germany in Prague on Wednesday evening, they will already have a fairly clear idea of what they must emulate. Earlier that day, some 11,000 miles away, the country's Under-20s will have played Mali in an Under-20 World Cup semifinal in Auckland, New Zealand; they are the only European side left in the competition and their progress underlines the fact that, even if the senior team can do little right, the Serbian youth system is among the world's very best.
The point will be hammered home if the Under-21s can be successful too, and nobody in an intensely competitive Group A that also includes Denmark and hosts Czech Republic will have been glad to see Mladen Dodic's team drawn out. Dodic took over from Radovan Curcic, now the senior side's manager, six months ago and has a tough act to follow: Serbia's Under-21s qualified after Curcic led them to a superb playoff win over reigning champions Spain, despite missing a raft of first-choice players.
Dodic will have thinned resources to call upon himself, primarily because a number of those used in qualifying -- such as Matija Nastasic, Lazar Markovic and Aleksandar Mitrovic -- were involved in the senior team's recent Euro 2016 qualifiers and have not been released for this competition. Borussia Dortmund's Milos Jojic and recent Southampton loanee Filip Djuricic should be involved, though, and Serbia will have the creativity to cause problems. It will be a big test for Dodic, whose career has mainly been spent managing medium-sized teams back home, but what price a double success for the Serbs this summer?
4. Home hopes are slim for the Czechs
While home status can be enough to propel a team through a tournament, it would take some performance for the Czech Republic to make it through and an early exit would be another reminder that the country -- a genuine power at senior level for a decade either side of the millennium -- has barely produced a player of continental standing since Tomas Rosicky and Petr Cech.
They will kick the tournament off against Denmark in front of a capacity crowd at Prague's Eden Arena but will do so without the Watford striker Matej Vydra, on whom many hopes had rested. Vydra had a fine season in the Championship for the promoted side but his call-up was blocked by Watford's owners. Obvious quality is therefore thin on the ground although Tomas Kalas, who impressed on loan at Middlesbrough from Chelsea, will play at centre-back and his nous will be crucial to a team that otherwise looks limited experience-wise. An exception can be made for Vaclav Kadlec, the prolific Sparta Prague forward who is also a fixture at the higher level now, while perhaps there is some exciting precedent in the dugout.
The Czechs' coach, Jakub Dovalil, took the country to the semifinals of the UEFA Under-19 Championship seven years ago -- in a tournament that was held in the Czech Republic. It goes to show that the hosts are not a write-off -- but the main hope is that this month's health check on Czech football will not produce damning results.
5. Revel in a tournament that gets to the point
It will not be long before European Championship finals of fewer than 24 teams feel, at senior level anyway, like a strange and distant memory. Distilling an atomised continent to eight contenders is no small task these days -- bizarrely, qualifying for the 2017 Under-21 Championship has already begun -- but there remain benefits to the eight-team format used in this age group and one is that this summer's tournament will be fiercely contested from the beginning.
Both groups look well weighted and, if it seems puzzling that the likes of Spain, France and the Netherlands are all missing, perhaps the conclusion is that all of the teams that qualified will be intensely competitive. The 2013 tournament brought 45 goals in 15 games; the proximity of silverware leads to some thrilling encounters from the off between teams that are almost always well-matched. Many of those who missed out would certainly have graced the competition, but holding an event across just 13 days means that you have to be on your game straightaway. The quality is uniformly high and, as an England team containing several expensive youngsters found out two years ago, this event demands that you do not operate in anything but top gear for every second spent on the pitch.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.