The European Under-21 Championship stands as one of football’s great proving grounds.
A plethora of famous names will take to the fields in Italy and San Marino for the next fortnight. On Sunday’s opening night alone, Real Madrid midfielder Dani Ceballos’ world-class 25-yard curled effort and Fiorentina winger Federico Chiesa’s brace lit up a 3-1 win for the co-hosts against Spain.
Talent in the competition, however, runs far deeper than just two of the continent’s most-recognisable youngsters. Sport360 has picked out a quartet of emerging starlets that are set to stamp their quality on the game, in the coming period.
Club: Real Sociedad
Interested club(s): Barcelona, Athletic Bilbao
‘Big Foot’ – so called because of his remarkable size 47 boots – has wasted no time in leaving a sizeable impression.
The Basque attacker boasts useful versatility, boundless energy and an improving eye for goal that witnessed a career-best 14 goals in 41 matches recorded in 2018/19. No wonder the likes of champions Barcelona have, reportedly, registered interest in landing a player who, joyously, does not fit the norms of Spanish football.
Do not expect the deftness of Manchester City’s 125-cap veteran David Silva or searing top speed of Jesus Navas from Oyarzabal. Only two assists were notched in 37 La Liga run-outs last term, while averages of 0.5 accurate crosses per game and 1.3 inaccurate crosses shows he doesn’t hug the touchline.
Parallels are, instead, drawn to a young Antoine Griezmann and his steep rise at La Real nearly a decade ago.
Whether stationed on either flank, or through the middle, Oyarzabal uses laudable work-rate, movement and a hammer of a left boot to wrought devastation. Euro U-21 defences beware.
Interested club(s): AC Milan, Inter Milan
Fiorentina’s loss has been Atalanta’s gain.
August 2016’s narrow-sighted decision to, perplexingly, dump the composed Mancini at lower-league Perugia has aged terribly. The commanding 23-year-old has gone on to earn a regular spot in Roberto Mancini’s – no relation – senior squad, plus a shot at the Champions League next term after his influential role during the grandest campaign in Atalanta’s 111-year history.
The Pontedera-native is the epitome of a modern centre-back. Towering height at 6 ft 3 in is bolstered by a sprinter’s pace, while he holds no fears over being tasked with developing play from defence.
There are, simply, no obvious weaknesses to his game. Mancini has even flourished at the opposite end of the pitch, forcing five strikes in 25 appearances during his first season of regular Serie A action to become the joint-highest-scoring centre-back.
Duvan Zapata and Josip Ilicic’s flood of goals grabbed attention at Atalanta in 2018/19. Both, however, would acknowledge the startling brilliance exhibited by the blossoming Mancini.
Club: Hertha Berlin
Position: Defensive midfielder
Interested club(s): Arsenal, Manchester United
Reports about the demise of Germany’s production line after the World Cup 2018 humiliation have been rubbished by the swathe of starlets that have since broken through.
The pick of these talents – such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz and Manchester City’s Leroy Sane – were eschewed duty for this under-age tournament. It does not mean, however, that fine performers cannot be found, chief among them being metronomic Hertha midfielder Maier.
Comparisons to Real Madrid’s Toni Kroos have been made with regularity since his Bundesliga debut in 2017. Maier’s 49 passes per 2018/19 Bundesliga match was the highest at Hertha, while his accuracy of 86.7 per cent was the joint-third best.
These statistics point to the joyful simplicity in his game. Why over-complicate things?
Like his esteemed compatriot, mastery of the midfield is earned through positioning and anticipation. Last term’s average of 1.3 tackles per top-flight fixture was only the 10th best at Hertha, despite his pivotal position in front of the defence.
With Hertha conceding 11 more goals than 2017/18, this passivity does have its drawbacks.
Maier is also yet to net from nearly 50 senior appearances, while much of this spring was impacted by fitness issues. But he possesses an influence that can only continue to grow.
Club: FC Copenhagen
Interested club(s): Wolverhampton Wanderers, Tottenham Hotspur
Few other players in Europe experienced an ascension to match Skov’s during 2018/19.
Perennial Superliga champions Copenhagen’s choice to plunder the Silkeborg ranks last summer was rewarded with a campaign that reset the barometers of individual success in Denmark. A left peg imbued with the explosive force of an atomic bomb saw Skov net a record 29 times in the top flight.
Remarkably, this epic haul contained 14 goals from outside the penalty box and an exceptional eight free-kicks. No wonder parties from across the continent have registered interest in acquiring him.
Skov is an unalloyed wide forward, repeatedly cutting inside from the right flank and peppering shots. Intriguingly for watching scouts, he was still able to produce nine assists from 34 games with the Telia Parken-outfit.
There will be worries that Skov’s propensity for long-range goals points to a one-season wonder. But with a predicted transfer fee under £10m, surely someone will gamble if even flickers of ability follow at the Euro U-21s.
The Brazil superstar has endured a hugely frustrating season with PSG, culminating in injury and an allegation of sexual assault that he strenuously denies.
To make matters worse, the 27-year-old has been ruled out of the entirety of the Copa America after sustaining an ankle injury in a warm-up versus Qatar.
PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi has recently criticised unnamed players for their ‘celebrity behaviour’ in the French capital, and the remarks were almost certainly aimed at Neymar.
Now ESPN FC claim the Ligue 1 juggernauts are ‘open’ to selling their maverick, with a return to Barca or moves to Madrid and Manchester all possibilities.
It is unclear whether Barcelona or Real have the required funds – given their expenditure and pursuits of other players so far this summer – while United are foundering with no Champions League football next season.
Lionel Messi, however, recently made it clear that he would welcome Neymar back to Camp Nou with open arms to rekindle the ‘MSN’ connection.
“He’s a phenomenon, we keep in touch and still talk, in fact we have a Whatsapp group, him, Luis Suarez and me, it’s called ‘The three South Americans’ or something like that,” Messi said ahead of the Copa America.
Jonathan Barnett told Sky Sports “obviously, Gareth’s situation at Real hasn’t improved,” in comments carried by the Daily Mirror.
And he acknowledged the Welshman and former Tottenham forward “could fit” in as part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s revitalisation of Manchester United.
“I think he could do very well – he is still one of the best players in the world, but it is very unlikely,” Barnett said.
Joachim Andersen‘s asking price of £31.2million was too high for Arsenal, but the Gunners’ loss may be Tottenham’s gain.
The Sampdoria defender is viewed as a replacement for the Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld, according to the Daily Star.
But the Danish 23-year-old is also reportedly being considered by Serie A clubs AC Milan, Juventus and Napoli.
Liverpool are believed to be interested in England goalkeeper Alex McCarthy, who is on the outer at Southampton.
The 30-year-old was player of the season for the Saints in 2017-18, but lost his starting spot to Angus Gunn in 2019.
The Reds will soon allow Simon Mignolet to leave and manager Jurgen Klopp is searching for a back-up custodian, the Evening Standard reports.
Norwegian teenager Oscar Bobb is about to be offered a contract by Manchester City, the Daily Mail says.
The 15-year-old gained prominence at Lyn Oslo before his move to Portugal’s Porto was blocked, leading him to return to Norway to his current home at Valerenga.
City first began talks with the midfielder in 2018.