8 potential stars to watch out for at the European Under-21s
Ever since the European Under-21 Championship was established in 1978, it has been one of the best places to catch a glimpse of the stars of tomorrow.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane, Liverpool’s Emre Can and Chelsea’s Andreas Christensen are among the talented prospects who will be involved in the 2015 edition in the Czech Republic, but here are eight participants lesser-known to English audiences that are worth keeping an eye on.
Domenico Berardi (Italy)
The Juventus-owned striker, who has spent the past two seasons on loan at Sassuolo and is still awaiting his Bianconeri debut, is one of the most exciting youngsters in the Italian game.
Fifteen goals in 32 Serie A appearances for a mid-table side in 2014/15 was evidence of his predatory instincts, while 10 assists showed he is far more than just a pure goalscorer.
Drawn alongside England and Portugal – two of the three pre-tournament favourites – in Group B, Luigi Di Biagio’s side will need Berardi to be at his sharpshooting best if they are to progress to the semi-finals.
Leonardo Bittencourt (Germany)
The son of a former Brazilian footballer, Bittencourt could have opted to represent the Seleção at youth level but instead chose the country of his birth. Germany are reaping the rewards, with the Hannover winger one of the Under-21s’ most important players in qualifying for the upcoming championship.
A 2012 move from Energie Cottbus to Borussia Dortmund probably came too soon for the young prodigy, but Bittencourt has since proven he has the talent to reach a similar level in the future. The 21-year-old will now be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira, who announced themselves on the international stage as the Germans triumphed in the 2009 edition of this tournament.
Pierre-Emile Højbjerg (Denmark)
Strong, energetic, dynamic and with a fine range of passing, the box-to-box midfielder will look to replicate his fantastic domestic form in 2015 for his country, who could be dark horses to win the competition.
After unsurprisingly finding game time hard to come by at Bayern Munich, Højbjerg joined Augsburg on loan at the beginning of January. The 19-year-old immediately became a key man as the Fuggerstädter qualified for the Europa League with an unexpected fifth-place finish, and has now set his sights on a regular place in Pep Guardiola’s plans next term. Bayern’s sporting director, Matthias Sammer, made clear how highly Højbjerg is regarded in Bavaria, telling reporters in January that the club’s decision to hand the Dane a new three-year deal was “a very clear sign that we intend to build around him”.
Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
The Monaco schemer is arguably the most exciting member of a gifted Portugal side who won all eight group games in qualifying as well as both legs of their play-off with the Netherlands.
Silva is a classy creator with a particular penchant for perfectly weighted through-balls, a string-puller capable of shifting spectators to the edge of their seats. He was superb for Monaco as they qualified for next season’s Champions League, scoring a respectable nine goals in 32 Ligue 1 appearances.
Many in Portugal thought Benfica’s decision to allow Silva to join the principality club on a permanent deal in January was premature; the 20-year-old will be hoping to reinforce that view at the Euros.
Patrik Carlgren (Sweden)
If Sweden are to advance from what appears a difficult Group B, they will need keeper Carlgren to be on top form. The AIK custodian was outstanding as Håkan Erikson’s team squeezed past Turkey, Poland and Greece in the group stage of qualifying before overcoming France in the play-off round, and will be aiming for a repeat performance in the tournament proper. Discussing Carlgren’s displays in training in the build-up to March’s friendly victory over Serbia, Erikson proclaimed that he had “never seen anything like it”.
Born in January 1992, Carlgren is the joint-oldest player who will be involved this summer. If he is able to repel the likes of Kane and Berardi, a move to one of Europe’s major leagues could be on the cards.
Daniele Rugani (Italy)
Big things are expected of the Juventus man on the peninsula, with many already heralding Rugani as the next great Italian defender. The 20-year-old loanee was essential to Empoli’s survival in Serie A last term, a model of consistency at the heart of the newly-promoted team’s back-line.
Strong in the air, adept in possession and an excellent reader of the game, Rugani is the archetypal modern-day centre-half. His immediate future has yet to be decided – Juve may recall him or let him spend another season in Tuscany – but he will first be focused on attaining international success in the Czech Republic.
Milos Jojic (Serbia)
Having played 18 times for the Under-21s and won five caps for the senior side, Jojic brings plenty of international experience to Mladen Dodic’s Serbia outfit.
A fabulous set-piece taker who loves a shot from distance, the Borussia Dortmund midfielder is also a hard worker who is happy to put his foot in and help his side out defensively. While Jojic still has the tendency to drift in and out of games, there is no doubt he has ability to have a major influence. The 2015 European Under-21 Championship could be the stage on which he proves just that.
Max Meyer (Germany)
Meyer’s Champions League exploits with Schalke mean he is perhaps more well-known than most of his contemporaries on this list, but he is a player who is still worth looking out for as Horst Hrubesch’s charges attempt to lift the trophy. A silky dribbler with a low centre of gravity, Meyer was the top scorer and best player at the European Under-17 Championship in 2012. He has got even better since then, displaying a maturity and footballing intelligence usually associated with more senior players: 10 goals in 18 European Cup games is testament to the forward’s potential.