Quality international football in the Italian sun plus a glittering array of some of the world`s finest young talent what`s not to love about the UEFA Under 21 Championships from 16th to 30th June in Italy.
A round-robin format will produce three group winners who will qualify along with the best runners-up. The U2I Championships will also serve as the qualifying competition for the 2020 Olympics with the top four teams going to Japan.
In 2017 Italy went out at the semi-final stage and four years earlier they were runners-up. Their most experienced players are 21 year old midfielder Udinese`s Rolando Mandragaro and Torino striker Vittorio Paringini who has a one in three strike ratio, seven goals in 21 appearances. However 19 year Moise Kean is the player everyone is raving about whether he plays as a solo striker or a winger. The Juventus forward has scored three times in his international career thus far and when he was just 16 he won the treble with Juve. Kean has already made his senior debut, against the USA last November, and is all about goals. In 2015-16 he scored 24 times in 25 games for the Juventus Youth team so is most definitely one to watch, for Spain, Belgium, Poland and the rest of the football world.
Spain have an incredible record in this competition having won in 2011 and 2013 and being runners-up last time out in 2017. They have an experienced squad with goals in every department.
Their most capped current player is Jorge Mere of FC Koln who plays alongside skipper Jesus Vallejo, Real Madrid, while the danger man is 22 year old Levante striker Borja Mayoral who has a goal record of better than one every two games, 14 in 26 appearances.
Poland`s best showing is reaching the quarter-finals which they have done five times the last being in 1994. They did not qualify again until 2017 when they went out at the group stage. The bulk of their players are home based though their best known player is Dawid Kownacki who plays for Fortuna Dusseldorf where he is currently on loan from Sampdoria. He is far and away the top scorer for his country with an impressive 10 goals in his 14 appearances thus far.
Belgium`s best showing at this level was back in 2007 when they reached the last four. Since then they have floundered in the wilderness failing to qualify for five successive finals. But this year, perhaps boosted by the senior team`s success they have gone to town and been scoring for fun, at least three goals a game in the last five matches. The squad relies heavily on home-based players though Isaac Mbenza has been with Huddersfield Town. The player with the best current scoring record is Anderlecht`s 21 year old striker Landry Dimata with seven goals in his 12 appearances thus far. The team has an 11 game unbeaten record stretching back to March 2017 so must be considered odds on to qualify.
PREDICTION: Belgium, Spain as potential best runner-up
It has been a steady evolution of the Germany team at this level over the last six years. In 2013 it was the group stage, two years later they reached the last four and in 2017 they were winners. The team has an incredible recent record of seven wins and just one draw since last September including the most recent victory, 2-1 away to England.
Up front the side has an impressive strike trio of Torles Knll of FC Nurnberg, Aaron Seydel and Cedric Teuchert, the latter two having a goal a game scoring ration. Seydel has four in four while the impressive Schalke 04 striker, Teuchert has netted eight in eight.
Denmark`s best showing at this level was in 2015 when they reached the semi-finals. The team goes into this tournament with an unbeaten record in 2019, three wins and a draw and those victories included impressive triumphs over Belgium, 3-2, and France,1-0.
Rasmus Nissen has just finished the season in helping Ajax to the `Double`. Although a defender by trade he has scored seven goals in his 20 international appearances thus far. Up front the Danes have even more scoring potential with Genk`s Marcus Ingvartsen leading the charts with 17 goals in 25 games ably supported by Dynamo Kyiv striker Mikkel Duelund who has six in 20.
Serbia reached the Final in 2007 but since then they have faltered at the group stage each time and didn`t even qualify in 20111 and 2013.
The team has only played one game this calendar year, a 2-0 win in Poland, so that may count against them.
There isn`t a lot of experience in the squad, their most capped player is skipper Vukasin Jovanovic, the Bordeaux stopper has made 24 appearances.
Austria has a few experienced players, fortunately, or unfortunately depending on perspective, they are all forwards. Mathias Honsak has the best scoring rate with seven goals in 12 appearances while Sturm Graz striker Arnel Jakupovic isn`t far behind with six in 15. Unlikely to make an impact.
PREDICTION: Impossible to look beyond Germany, Denmark could make it as best runner-up
Favourites England kick off against France in the first game of the group which has a good chance of deciding who tops the group. There will be a lot of familiar names for home fans and not just in Aidy Boothroyd`s squad. Although not as full of household names as in previous years France can still call upon the striking power of Lyon`s Moussa Dembele who made his name with Celtic before a £22 million move to Ligue 1, and Jonathan Bamba of Lille who has a one in three strike rate for the Under 21 side.
For England Phil Foden, fresh from becoming one of the youngest ever Premier League winners, will be joined by other top flight youngsters including Tom Davies, Demarai Gray, Harvey Barnes and James Maddison as well as Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Dean Henderson who was crucial in helping Sheffield United achieve promotion to the Premier League will be hoping a good tournament in Italy will help him heap pressure on England`s current Number 1, Jordan Pickford while at the other end of the team Harvey Barnes has shown with West Brom and his parent club Leicester that he is the kind of free-thinking and intuitive forward that has a big future in the game – a modern day Geoff Hurst if you like.
Croatia will be hoping to continue their meteoric rise up the FIFA rankings with continued progress by their Under 21s although they go into this tournament with very little experience. Only four players are in double figures for caps, including Andrija Balic, who plays with Udinese. Also in the squad is Leicester City`s Philip Benkovic who has scored 2 goals in his seven Under 21 appearances thus far.
While most of their players are home-based Romania`s best and most well known player has a great surname, George Puscas, of Serie B side Palermo. He will certainly threaten any defence in this competition with a very impressive strike rate of 14 goals in his 21 Under 21 appearances.
PREDICTION: England to top the group
Last four prediction
Spain or Denmark as best runner up
By Brian Beard.