The UEFA under-21 European Championship will be contested from the 17th to 30th of June, in the Czech Republic this summer. Despite leaving out some star names such as Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, Gareth Southgate’s England squad still includes the likes of Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings, and the Three Lions go to the competition as one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
The Czech Republic qualify automatically as hosts, and they’ve been joined by the seven best teams from qualifying to make up the field of eight. Two groups of four will play each other team once, with the top two in each group progressing to the semi-finals.
There were a few surprises in the qualifying campaign, none more so than the elimination of Spain by Serbia. The Serbs 2-1 win in Cadiz brought to an end an unbeaten run of 35 matches going back to 2009, and means that the winners of the last two tournaments (in 2011 and 2013) will be unable to defend their trophy this time around. France were also knocked out after going down 4-3 on aggregate to Sweden, despite winning the first leg 2-0.
Portugal saw off Holland in a dramatic 5-4 aggregate play-off, after winning all eight of their qualifying games, while England and Germany comfortably won their play off games against Croatia and Ukraine respectively, having both gone through qualifying unbeaten.
The groups for the final tournament are as follows:
Group A – Czech Republic, Denmark, Serbia, Germany.
Group B – England, Italy, Portugal, Sweden.
Let’s look at some of the leading contenders to win the competition:
Germany – +275 with Betvictor
It’s not unusual for Germany to be favourites for an international tournament, and once again they will travel to the Czech Republic with a strong chance. They were one of the strongest teams in qualifying for the 2013 tournament, but with several key players being left at home, they under-performed in the tournament. That shouldn’t be the case this time around, with the majority of the squad expected to take part, and that makes them more than dangerous.
They won six and drew two of their eight qualifying matches, and finished 8 points clear of Romania to top their group. They followed that up with a comfortable 5-0 aggregate victory over Ukraine in their play off game, and have been rewarded with a place in what looks like the easier of the two groups. They’re in Group A along with hosts Czech Republic, Denmark and Serbia – three of the four outsiders in the betting stakes. It would be a shock if they didn’t progress from the group, and a semi-final place at least beckons for the Germans.
England ‘go there with belief and want to challenge’ according to boss, Gareth Southgate, and he has stuck in the main with the group of players that performed so well in qualifying. England’s last appearance at the tournament saw them lose all three group games under Stuart Pearce in the 2013 competition, and they will aim to make a much better fist of it this time around. They haven’t won the under-21 Championship since back-to-back wins 1982 and 1984, but have a generation of players keen to make their mark on the international stage, with Euro 2016 on the horizon.
To their advantage is a potent strike force of Premier League regulars in Harry Kane and Saido Berahino. Both men have been the bright spark if their respective clubs seasons, with Kane in particular impressing at every opportunity. He won young player of the year at a canter, and scored on his full England debut. He’s potentially the most exciting striker England have had for a long time, and will surely find his way into the full squad on a regular basis next season.
He’s a great bet to be England’s top scorer in the competition, and any doubts about his lack of recent goal-scoring form were put to bed with his winner for Spurs against Everton on the last day of the Premier league season.
Portugal may offer the biggest threat to the top two, and they are in the tough Group B with England. However, they won all eight qualifying games, before knocking out Holland in the play offs. They are likely to take all of their top players to the Czech Republic and have a live chance of winning the competition for the first time in their history.
Italy are longer odds due to the uncertainty over their squad. They have some excellent young stars who didn’t take part in qualifying, but it would boost their chances significantly if they were selected for the tournament. It remains to be seen if they will, but Italy have a decent chance regardless, after finishing top of a tricky qualifying group that included Serbia and Belgium. They beat Slovakia in a play off to secure their place, and will present a real challenge to England and Portugal as they fight over the top two spots in the group.
Best of the Rest
Serbia knocked out holders Spain in their play off, a result that was all the more impressive as they won 2-1 in Spain after a goalless draw at home. They finished a couple of points behind Italy in their qualification group, and effectively ended Belgium’s participation in the competition, finishing ahead of them on goal difference. Hosts Czech Republic will benefit from local support which cannot be underestimated, and they’ve been given a real chance of qualification in what looks the easier of the two groups. Denmark and Sweden have both performed well to reach this stage, and while both have some extremely talented youngsters, it remains to be seen if they have a big enough pool of players to be competitive at the top level.
To win the UEFA under-21 European Championship
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