Italy's star power, Real Madrid's new striker and the best young goalies: Why you should watch the U21 Euros
The Under-21 European Championship kicks off in Italy and San Marino this Sunday -- with live coverage in the U.S. on ESPN3, ESPNU -- and whetting the appetite every bit as much as the decision to stage a number of games in Emilia Romagna, arguably the best place to eat on the planet, is the array of talent on display.
While the backdrop will evoke the 1990 World Cup, some of the names -- Ianis Hagi (son of Gheorghe), Marcus Thuram (son of World Cup winner Lilian) and Federico Chiesa (son of Enrico) -- will no doubt evoke France '98 and their fathers' generation. There is also a son of a Gunn [Angus] and even a Rocky [Bushiri]. Bring on the knockouts.
Graced by Xavi, Francesco Totti, Mesut Ozil and Frank Lampard in the past, this is the tournament that keeps on giving and promises to be as tasty as the mortadella and tagliatelle al ragù on the menu in Bologna.
The frontrunners to win it all
Spain clearly have unfinished business after reaching the final two years ago. They were the most talented team but lost to an underwhelming Germany side in the final. Dani Ceballos, the player of the tournament in Poland back then, returns hoping to set the record straight at the heart of a frightening midfield that features Napoli's Fabian Ruiz, Pablo Fornals (who just completed a move to West Ham) and Valencia's Carlos Soler. Still, the best team doesn't always win, a trend that began in 2015 when unfancied Sweden also shocked Bernardo Silva's Portugal.
Italy, the tournament hosts and most successful nation at this event, are hoping to go all the way. Five-time winners of this competition, those triumphs came during a golden age between 1992 and 2004. Looking very fresh indeed, the emergence of Roma playmaker Nicolo Zaniolo and Juventus striker Moise Kean has bred confidence.
Bizarrely, it's been more than 30 years since France last won this competition, an incredibly long time when you consider how production at this talent factory has largely gone uninterrupted. They're looking to the clever Lyon midfielder Houssem Aouar, who dazzled against Manchester City in the Champions League, to unlock games for them but keep an eye out for RB Leipzig's centre-back pairing of Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano. They are absurdly good.
Then there's England, who have been winning plenty of youth titles in recent years. An Achilles injury has ruled out Callum Hudson-Odoi and Jadon Sancho has skipped this level to be part of the senior side, but not to worry. Who needs them when you've got a guy in James Maddison, who just created more chances in 2018-19 than any other Premier League player, to say nothing of City's golden boy Phil Foden, the hero of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup.
Look no further than Poland if you're searching for a dark horse.
Are Italy Back?
The hosts' squad is stacked and Luigi Di Biagio should benefit from close collaboration within the Federation. Eight players have already been capped at senior level, including Zaniolo, Kean and Sandro Tonali, who all starred in the Under-19 team that finished runners-up at the Euros last summer. Andrea Pinamonti has been instantly promoted to the squad after lighting up the Under-20 World Cup last week as Italy made it to the semifinals. The synergy and experience between age groups is encouraging.
Naturally a lot is expected of Chiesa and Nicolo Barella, both of whom are already established in the senior team. The pair are likely to move clubs this off-season and combine for in excess of €100m in transfer fees, with Juventus and Inter gearing up to spend big on them. Pay attention too to Manuel Locatelli, the Sassuolo midfielder, who has come on leaps and bounds under Roberto De Zerbi. He put in an excellent display against Croatia in March.
Another key member of Di Biagio's side is Riccardo Orsolini, the Bologna winger who finished the league campaign in mightily impression fashion with eight Serie A goals. He has hit a new level in his development after winning the Golden Boot at the Under-20 World Cup in 2017.
Drawn in the toughest group with Spain, Belgium and Poland, Di Biagio has no margin for error and question marks remain as to whether he can tap the potential of this team. Can he deliver?
Will "Yari Potter" bring the magic for Belgium?
At 17, Belgium's playmaker Yari Verschaeren is the tournament's youngest player. The precocious Anderlecht graduate comes to Italy cold, with school and his end-of-year exams taking precedence over training camp. Still, they were prepared to wait as Verschaeren promises to be the next big thing out of Flanders. The Antwerp native has already broken into Anderlecht's first team, making 18 starts this season.
Yet to bulk up enough for the rigors of the senior game, Verschaeren's intelligence compensates for his lack of weight. Scouts highlight his well-timed runs off the ball to threaten in behind. He is the bright spark in an underwhelming Belgium squad that pales in comparison with the recent golden generation at senior level.
Word on the street is that Romania's crop of youngsters is the finest the country have produced in some time. Gheorghe Hagi's boy, Ianis, will attract attention for obvious reasons. Viitorul Constanta, the club his father owns and coaches, has brought through 10 of the players in Mirol Radoi's squad. Brighton have high hopes for one of them, the defensive midfielder/anchor Tudor Baluta, who joined the Premier League side in January but spent the remainder of the season on loan with his former club.
Razvan Marin is already considered too good for this level and represented the senior side in the qualifiers for next year's Euros. Ajax have already got their hands on him after a stellar year with Standard in Belgium where he came close to netting double figures from midfield. Forward Denis Dragus has also garnered high profile interest from around the continent after his performances in the Europa League for Viitorul.
The €60 million question: Is Jovic ready for Real?
The Serbia striker is the self-proclaimed "happiest man in the world," so it's not hard to understand why Luka Jovic feels that way after a fairytale year at Eintracht Frankfurt culminated in a €60m move to Real Madrid. An efficient scorer, as demonstrated by the five goals he rifled past Fortuna Dusselfdorf over 46 minutes last October, the 21-year-old extracts the maximum from the minimum. Practically ambidextrous, Jovic's timing and spatial awareness make him deadly in the box. He's clutch, too, scoring in both legs of this year's Europa League semifinal, only to bow out to Chelsea on penalties.
Now under greater scrutiny, it remains to be seen how Jovic handles the intensified coverage and criticism, which is part and parcel of being a Madrid player ,and in the case of this summer's Under-21 European Championship, the biggest fish in a pond full of great catches.
A vintage year for goalkeepers
This is a vintage year for shot-stoppers. Even in the absence of Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is still eligible for this competition at age 20, you can expect the standard of goalkeeping to be very high.
It's anticipated that Schalke's Alexander Nübel will follow in Manuel Neuer's footsteps and move to Bayern. Romania's Andrei Radu, of Genoa, impressed in Serie A this season and his penalty-saving exploits are a major reason why Romania are making their first appearance in the tournament since 1998 when they were the hosts. His crosstown rival, Samp's Indonesian-born Emil Audero faces stiff competition for the starting spot in the Italy team with Napoli's fragile but gifted Alex Meret, giving Di Biagio a tough decision to make. Born and raised in Udine, he'd love to lift the trophy at the Dacia Arena on June 30.
The pick of the crop though, is Poland's Bartlomiej Dragowski. Nobody's in better form: he made a record 17 saves in Empoli's 0-0 with Atalanta in April. Going by the xG metric, an average keeper would have allowed 6.03 goals that night. The 21-year-old stopped another 10 shots in the derby against parent club Fiorentina and almost kept Empoli up, panicking Inter on the final day when it looked like he'd single-handedly get in the way of them reaching the Champions League. Those displays earned him the Serie A Player of the Month award for May.
Group stage matches to watch
Italy vs. Spain (Sunday, June 16, 3 p.m. ET, ESPNU): As with last month's Giro d'Italia cycle race, the tournament kicks off in Bologna and its immediately uphill for hosts Italy as they clash with Spain at the Renato Dall'Ara. The teams crossed in a friendly a little under two years ago, with almost the exact same personnel, and it was a one-sided schooling. The Azzurrini need to show how far they've come since that 3-0 defeat.
England vs. France (Tuesday, June 18, 3 p.m. ET): England take on France in Cesena on Tuesday, the spotlight falling on ability of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Ryan Sessegnon to stretch the play and allow Foden and Maddison to test that impressive Bleu rearguard.
Germany vs. Serbia (Thursday, June 20, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN3): Later in the week, the Germans need no introduction to Jovic, while Bayern will no doubt be following how Nubel gets on against him in Trieste.