Assessing England’s chances at the Under-21 European Championship

Assessing England’s chances at the Under-21 European Championship

England are hoping to win the Under-21 European Championship for the first time since 1984 when the Young Lions open their account at the 2021 tournament this week.

Even though the Under-21 Euros were always meant to be held in 2021, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has seen UEFA split the final tournament, co-hosted by Hungary and Slovenia.

The group stage will be played from 24-31 March, with the knockout rounds between 31 May and 6 June. The reason being that the senior European Championship is delayed from last year and would have drowned the Under-21 tournament unless the dates were altered.

To be eligible, players must have been younger than 21 at the beginning of 2019, which was the year that qualifying began. That means players at the final tournament are permitted be as old as 23 years and six months, which will be the case for a handful of individuals in most squads.

Pedro GoncalvesPedro Goncalves
Portugal’s Pedro Goncalves will be a dangerous opponent | Octavio Passos/Getty Images

Switzerland: Finished as runners-up back in 2011 but haven’t actually qualified for the final tournament since then. Enjoyed a strong qualifying campaign with 27 points from a possible 30 – only England and Spain had better records – and the majority of the squad is based in Switzerland. Alexandre Jankewitz and top scorer Andi Zeqiri are at Southampton and Brighton respectively, while winger Noah Okafor joined Red Bull Salzburg from Basel last summer.

Portugal: Often do well when they qualify – this is their ninth time at a final tournament, although are still yet to lift the trophy and have twice been runners-up (1994 and 2015). Another side who qualified well by taking 27 points, matching Netherlands, France and Switzerland, and the big name to watch out for is Sporting CP midfielder Pedro Goncalves, who has effectively replaced Bruno Fernandes at the club. Barcelona’s Francisco Trincao is also in the squad.

Croatia: Qualified in 2000, 2004 and 2019 but have never yet been beyond the group stage and they may struggle to change that this time as no other country from a six-team group qualified for the final tournament with fewer points (20). Over half the squad is based at Croatian clubs, with Lovro Majer and Luka Ivanusec both capped at senior level before now and part of the Dinamo Zagreb side that dumped Tottenham out of the Europa League earlier this month.

England vs Switzerland, 25 March – 14.00 (GMT)

Portugal vs England, 28 March – 20.00 (BST)

Croatia vs England, 31 March – 17.00 (BST)

Mason Greenwood is part of the England Under-21 squadMason Greenwood is part of the England Under-21 squad
England have a strong squad with lots of Premier League regulars | Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Even with the likes of Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Reece James left out for potential inclusion in the senior ranks, this is a very strong England squad that has been named.

Few played the whole qualifying campaign, yet Mason Greenwood, Curtis Jones, Emile Smith Rowe, Eberechi Eze, Ben Godfrey, Dwight McNeil, Tom Davies and Callum Hudson-Odoi have plenty of Premier League experience under their respective belts.

Others, like Max Aarons and Marc Guehi are starters at the top end of the Championship.

Arsenal forward Eddie Nketiah scored 13 times in qualifying and is now England’s all-time leading Under-21 goalscorer with a total of 16 goals in 13 appearances.

Eddie Nketiah is England's all-time leading Under-21 goalscorerEddie Nketiah is England's all-time leading Under-21 goalscorer
Eddie Nketiah has scored 16 goals in 13 games for England U21s | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

Goalkeepers: Josef Bursik (Stoke), Josh Griffiths (Cheltenham), Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield Utd)

Defenders: Max Aarons (Norwich), Ben Godfrey (Everton), Marc Guehi (Swansea), Lloyd Kelly (Bournemouth), Ryan Sessegnon (Hoffenheim), Steven Sessegnon (Bristol City), Japhet Tanganga (Tottenham), Ben Wilmot (Watford)

Midfielders: Tom Davies (Everton), Ebere Eze (Crystal Palace), Conor Gallagher (West Brom), Curtis Jones (Liverpool), Dwight McNeil (Burnley), Oliver Skipp (Norwich)

Forwards: Rhian Brewster (Sheffield Utd), Mason Greenwood (Man Utd), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Noni Madueke (PSV Eindhoven), Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal), Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal)

Spain won the 2019 Under-21 European ChampionshipSpain won the 2019 Under-21 European Championship
England will almost certainly have to play Spain in the knockout rounds in summer | Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images

The knockout rounds won’t begin until the end of May after players have returned to their clubs to finish the domestic season, but the potential tournament bracket is already laid out.

Topping Group D would mean a quarter-final against the runners-up in Group B, likely to be Italy. But coming second would be expected to produce an even tougher last eight clash with holders Spain, who are expected to win Group B.

The former path as Group D winners would still likely mean facing Spain in the semi-finals.

France, Germany and Netherlands are likely to be the best sides on the other side of the knockout draw should England make it all the way through to the final.

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