U21 Euros: What to watch for as England, Spain, Germany, Italy contend
The European U21 Championships kick off in Poland on Friday, with seven former champions among the 12 participating nations and one country, Macedonia, making their debut. Nick Miller previews what to watch for in the group stages.
GROUP A: England, Poland, Sweden, Slovakia
Must-see game: Sweden vs. England (June 18)
The first match of the group could set the tone as the holders face an England side with plenty of Premier League quality and experience. Sweden are without a few high-profile eligible players -- notably Alexander Isak, who politely declined the chance to play -- and only one of the side that started the final two years ago is in the squad this time. They were surprise winners in 2015; under coach Hakan Ericson, could cause Aidy Boothroyd's England a few problems once again.
Players to watch
All eyes for England will be on Jordan Pickford, who sealed his £30 million move to Everton on Thursday. Rob Holding may also be able to capitalise on his brilliant last few weeks in the Premier League while up front, Tammy Abraham comes into the tournament off the back of scoring 26 goals on loan at Bristol City. For Slovakia, Laszlo Benes is one to keep an eye on: he impressed late in the season for Borussia Monchengladbach, earning comparisons with Marek Hamsik.
It's tricky to know what to expect from hosts Poland. As they didn't have to qualify, their build-up to the tournament has been a little limited. They have only played two friendlies this calendar year, losing them both (to Italy and Czech Republic), and indeed this is their first European Championships since 1994: they've failed to qualify for the last 11 tournaments. Still, they do have a couple of notable players, including Bartosz Kaputska, who caught the eye for the seniors at Euro 2016 but whose move to Leicester hasn't gone to plan, Karol Linetty (who was a regular for Sampdoria) and Arsenal defender Krystian Bielik. Will home advantage boost their form?
Predicted finish: 1. England, 2. Sweden, 3. Poland, 4. Slovakia
GROUP B: Portugal, Serbia, Spain, Macedonia
Must-see game: Spain vs. Portugal, June 20
It's the most high-profile game in the group if not necessarily the one between the two best teams. Spain's squad is formidable, featuring Saul Niguez, Hector Bellerin and Marco Asensio, a man who scored in the Champions League final. That said, they had to rely on the playoffs to qualify for the finals so perhaps Portugal, led by Renato Sanches and the hugely promising Porto midfielder Ruben Neves, can surprise them.
Players to watch
If you're watching this tournament to run the rule over players you might be watching in domestic football next season, the man to keep an eye on is probably Sandro Ramirez. After an excellent year for Malaga, a reported release fee of just £6m will almost certainly see him move somewhere this season, with Everton most frequently mentioned in the transfer rumour mill. Portugal forward Bruma has just moved to RB Leipzig for £11m, while it's worth noting that 12 of Macedonia's 23-man squad have already won caps for their senior side.
Serbia sprung quite a surprise at the 2015 U-20 World Cup, producing a dramatic late winner to beat Brazil in the final. A couple of their key men from that tournament are in the squad this time too, such as Nemanja Maksimovic, who scored that 118th minute goal in the final two years ago and subsequently earned a move to Valencia, winger Andrija Zivkovic and Liverpool midfielder Marko Grujic. The question will be whether they can translate their success from one age group to another. Additionally, it's worth noting that while Macedonia will be favourites to finish last, they qualified top of their group, ahead of France.
Predicted finish: 1. Spain, 2. Serbia, 3. Portugal, 4. Macedonia
GROUP C: Germany, Czech Rep., Denmark, Italy
Must-see game: Germany vs. Italy, June 24
Germany and Italy have faced each other in some classic senior encounters down the years, and their match in this tournament could be a cracker too. Both sides have hugely talented squads and the midfield battle should be particularly interesting: Mahmoud Dahoud and Max Arnold will be in the middle for Germany, likely to face a tough Italian trio. On paper, the Germans are the stronger team (they had a 100 percent record in qualifying) but Italy do have a knack of popping up with fine tournament performances when you least expect it.
Players to watch
You could make a decent case that Gianluigi Donnarumma is the best player at the whole tournament, never mind in Italy's squad. The Milan goalkeeper is still only 18 but has two seasons of Serie A excellence behind him and one assumes this will be his last involvement in any form of youth football. Arsenal fans might watch this tournament through their fingers whenever Germany's Serge Gnabry is on the pitch: he left having failed to get sufficient first-team chances a year ago and has just signed for Bayern Munich. Speaking of big money transfers, Czech striker Patrik Schick is on his way to Juventus for around €30m.
Denmark are an interesting side. Defeated semi-finalists in 2015, they are without perhaps their star eligible player in Kasper Dolberg and have only one squad member, Lucas Andersen, who has made an appearance for the senior team. What they do have, however, is plenty of experience at this level: only three of their squad are under the age of 20, they have 13 players in double figures for U21 caps and only dropped two points in qualifying. Their squad is very light on household names but what they lack in high-profile individuals they could make up for in team continuity and cohesiveness.
Predicted finish: 1. Germany, 2. Italy, 3. Denmark, 4. Czech Republic
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.