THE 2015 UEFA EUROPEAN UNDER-21 CHAMPIONSHIPS get underway on June 17 and with the absence of 2013 winners Spain there will be a new champion crowned in Czech Republic.
Italy, beaten finalists at the last tournament, will once again be one of the favourites, with Juventus forward – who has spent the last two seasons on loan at Sassuolo – Domenico Berardi providing sparkle in a typically resolute Italian squad martialed by Daniele Rugani, the only player not to miss a minute of Serie A football last season.
Germany possess a team full of class particularly in midfield where the trio of Maximilian Arnold, Emre Can and Max Meyer provide a balance between attacking intent and physical domination.
England come into the tournament on the back of 15 wins in 17 games and, in Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings, have three strikers who have scored regularly in the Premier League.
Portugal’s William Carvalho, Raphaël Guerreiro and Bernardo Silva have already played for the senior side and are early favourites to win the Golden Player award, lifted by the likes of Luís Figo, Andrea Pirlo and, most recently, Thiago Alcantara.
Serbia can’t be discounted despite the absence of powerful Anderlecht striker Aleksandar Mitrović, especially if Filip Đuričić finds his groove after a stop-start season at Southampton.
Sweden have a physically imposing squad, especially defender Alexander Milošević who will be looking to keep Kane quiet, while Czech Republic will be relying on a partisan home crowd and lively striker Václav Kadlec, who has long been marked out as a potential star but struggled at Eintracht Frankfurt.
The final nation in the eight-team competition is Denmark, arguably the most intriguing proposition due to the fact that expectation, both home and abroad, has never been higher.
In 1992 Richard Møller Nielsen’s side shocked world football by winning the Euros, defeating reigning World Cup champions Germany in the final and claiming a first international trophy. De Rød-Hvide’s victory was all the more remarkable given Michael Laudrup’s retirement. Nielsen built his team around defensive stability starting with Peter Schmeichel, one of the world’s best goalkeepers at the time.
A lack of world-class talent in the squad meant Denmark weren’t able to capitalise on their victory, failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and disappointing as defending champions at the 1996 Euros. Denmark peaked in the FIFA rankings at six, achieved in 1993 and 1996, but drifted out to 37 in 2008. The rankings, which it must be said often appear horribly skewed, currently place Denmark in 29th place, below the likes of Tunisia, Scotland and Greece.
However the excitement around the under-21 squad and their chances in Czech Republic belies a nation that has been starved of success at senior level in recent years. Denmark remained unbeaten throughout their qualifying campaign; winning eight games and drawing twice, before beating Iceland in the play-off round on away goals.
The undisputed star of the squad is 19-year-old Bayern Munich midfielder Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (pictured), who has already played seven times alongside Daniel Agger and Christian Eriksen for the senior side. As the winner of the Denmark Football Association Under-17 player of the year in 2011 and Spillerforeningen’s Danish talent of the year award in 2013 the hype surrounding Højbjerg has been constantly increasing year on year.
Pep Guardiola’s admiration for the midfielder was particularly striking in Martí Perarnau’s book Pep Confidential: The Inside Story of Pep Guardiola’s First Season at Bayern Munich. Guardiola sees Højbjerg as Bayern’s Sergio Busquets in the pivot role and has been particularly impressed with his natural sense of positioning and composure.
A loan spell at Augsburg in the second half of the Bundesliga season aided Højbjerg’s development as he chipped in with two goals and three assists during the Bavarian’s run to 5th place, their highest ever finish.
Højbjerg has had to cope with his father’s death – from stomach cancer last year – as he continues to make strives towards becoming a top-level professional, so the maturity he’s shown both on and off the pitch is remarkable.
A large part of Højbjerg’s role at the championships will be to provide Pione Sisto with service and allow the electric FC Midtjylland winger to show why he is so highly rated in Denmark.
Sisto was born in Uganda but moved to Denmark aged just two months. Despite winning the Danish Footballer’s Association Player of the Year award in 2014 the 20-year-old was unable to play for Denmark due to citizenship issues, although they have now been resolved.
While Højbjerg’s game manifests itself around calm and composure Sisto possesses an array of tricks and unpredictability that make a truly exciting prospect, not to mention someone scouts will be paying close attention to.
Viktor Fischer’s development has been similar to that of Sisto, although the 21-year-old is further down the path having already left Denmark. The winger moved from Midtjylland’s academy to Ajax in 2011 with several European heavyweights interested in securing his signature.
Progress in Amsterdam was initially encouraging with Fischer likened to compatriot Eriksen as he was named Ajax’s talent of the year in 2013, following an impressive debut season. Injury has hampered Fischer’s attempts to push on and he missed the majority of last season, staring just three games, although he ended the season with three goals in two games as well as scoring for Denmark’s senior side in the friendly win against Montenegro.
The Under-21 Championships offer Fischer another chance to put the frustration of last season behind him and prove that the initial buzz that surrounded his breakthrough for both club and country was not misplaced.
Andreas Christensen might well wish he had followed Fischer to Ajax when he left Brøndby to join Chelsea in 2012. Like Fischer, Christensen had the cream of Europe’s clubs clamouring for his signature but the defender chose to move to London. The 19-year-old has found first-team opportunities hard to come by with John Terry, Gary Cahill and Kurt Zouma ahead of him in José Mourinho’s squad.
However Mourinho has shown an increasing willingness to blood young players, handing Christensen his Premier League debut in May, and the Lillerød-born youngster will be aware that Terry is reaching the end of his Chelsea career.
Another Dane playing his football in south west London is midfielder Lasse Vigen Christensen who broke into Fulham’s first-team last season after joining from Midtjylland in 2012. Vigen Christensen was arguably Fulham’s best player before Christmas, signing a contract extension in January in the face of transfer speculation, although injury disrupted the second half of the 20-year-old’s season.
A more energetic midfielder than Højbjerg, Vigen Christensen thrives in a box-to-box role and top scored for Denmark in qualifying with five goals, including doubles against Estonia and Russia.
Away from individual talent there is a clear identity developing in Danish football, influenced by Ajax and moving away from the defensive shackles that dismayed Laudrup as a player. Denmark have already started to reap the rewards of this process, with technical players such as Eriksen a shining light for Højbjerg and co. to follow.
It is too early to say whether this group of players can match the class of 1992 in terms of success at senior level, but they already appear to be a more technical and exciting crop of footballers. For that reason Denmark’s tournament will make for interesting viewing as Jess Thorup’s squad look to step up to the plate and improve on their best showing of reaching the semi-final which, coincidentally, happened in 1992.
By James Robinson. Follow @JvmesJournalist