Spain and England are the bookmakers’ leading bets to win the Under-21 European Championship that kicks off in Denmark on Saturday, and their clash on Sunday is the only match of the tournament that has already sold out. But over the next two weeks we will see there are notable players among the other nations’ squads too.
Christian Eriksen, midfielder, and Nicki Bille Nielsen, forward (Denmark)
Whereas England eventually bowed to Arsenal’s claim that Jack Wilshere has outgrown the Under-21s, Denmark’s rising star Eriksen has taken the reverse path. Having been fast-tracked into the senior national team over a year ago and excelled there, the 20-year-old has parachuted down to the Under-21s to inspire the hosts in this tournament – he will make his debut at this level when Denmark begin their campaign against Switzerland on Saturday night.
He should have no trouble adapting to his new surrounds, since Danish national teams have been cultivating the same Ajax-inspired system at all levels ever since Morten Olsen took charge of the national team over a decade ago – and Eriksen plays his club football for none other than Ajax, whom he has just helped guide to the Dutch title.
A shrewd and nimble playmaker, he has somewhat inevitably been dubbed the new Michael Laudrup (by Johan Cruyff, among others), and it seems only a matter of time before someone pays Ajax the £15m-plus it would take to lure him to one of Europe’s big leagues. Denmark’s decision to suddenly draft in Eriksen was precipitated by ropey form during two years of friendlies, which spread fears that the hosts could suffer an embarrassing elimination in the group stage.
The man they are counting on to convert the chances that Eriksen is expected to create, and thereby help achieve the minimum target of a semi-final place, is the Villarreal striker Nicki Bille Nielsen, a dynamic natural finisher.
Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, striker (Iceland)
This Iceland team are being billed as the finest group of players ever to come out of that country. Which is really saying something. What it is saying, according to the Icelandic FA, is that we are about to see the fruit of lavish investment in the indoor facilities that have enabled this generation to become the first in the country’s history to be able to train properly throughout the long, frigid winters.
The team certainly plays with confidence, attacking relentlessly and racking up an impressive 29 goals in their eight qualifying group matches (in which the highlight was an emphatic 4-1 victory over the holders Germany) before beating Scotland home and away in the play-offs.
They also beat England 2-1 in a friendly in Preston in March. Their flamboyant forwards include 20-year-old Johann Gudmundsson and 21-year-old Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, the AZ Alkmaar striker who this season became the youngest player ever to score five goals in a single game in the Dutch top flight (during a 6-1 win over VVV). His total tally in this, his first full season at that level, was 15 goals. A 6ft 3in powerful targetman with impressive pace as well as aerial prowess, Sigthorsson could wreak havoc over the coming weeks.
Tomas Pekhart (Czech Republic)
Given the striking problems that Tottenham Hotspur endured this season, that club’s fans might not want to watch the Czech Republic over the next two weeks – because the country could be slickly spearheaded by a player who is starting to fulfil his potential after flopping at White Hart Lane.
Pekhart joined Tottenham as a 17-year-old in 2006 and was prolific for their youth team but never progressed beyond that and, after an unremarkable loan stint at Southampton, he returned home in 2009. His performance this season for Slavia Prague – and in the Czechs’ qualifying campaign for this tournament, during which he scored nine goals – convinced Nürnberg that he has reached a new maturity and he will thus join the Bundesliga club after, perhaps, shooting his country to victory in Denmark. He is, at any rate, one of the main reasons why Stuart Pearce makes the Czechs favourites for the tournament.
Taras Stepanenko (Ukraine)
Ukraine are one of the most experienced sides in the tournament, featuring several players who have played in the Champions League. Dynamo Kyiv’s Andriy Yarmolenko is a potent attacking force but the pivot around whom the team are built is their defensive midfielder and captain, Stepanenko. Since moving to Shakhtar Donestsk last summer his performances have been accomplished enough to earn him a call-up to the senior national team.
Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)
This player has already introduced himself to English viewers in the most spectacular style, coming off the bench to fire a rocket past Joe Hart during the Swiss senior team’s 3-1 defeat by England last September before being one of several youngsters whose finesse contrasted sharply with the plodding play of Fabio Capello’s team in the return of that fixture last week at Wembley. At 19, Shakiri has a left foot so cultured that it should wear a beret and run poetry seminars when not curling balls into team-mates’ paths and rivals’ top corners. Bayern Munich are leading the queue of clubs hoping to prise him from Basel in the near future.
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