It is a measure of the strength of competition in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship that the holders will not be around to defend their crown, but there will be no shortage of pretenders in Sweden this month.
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It is a measure of the strength of competition in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship that the holders will not be around to defend their trophy in Sweden. Champions in 2006 and 2007, the Netherlands were eliminated in the qualifying round and will pass on the mantle on 29 June, with no shortage of pretenders to their crown.
Hosts Sweden will look to emulate the Jong Oranje who became the first nation to win the tournament on home soil by defeating Serbia 4-1 in the Groningen final two years ago. If Royston Drenthe was the inspiration behind that Dutch success, local fans this time will be pinning their hopes on Ola Toivonen, Marcus Berg or Pontus Wernblom to lift Sweden through Group A where they will face Belarus, five-time champions Italy, and Serbia. The Azzurrini, together with Spain, England and Serbia (as part of Yugoslavia), are among four finalists to have won this event before and have their sights on a record sixth title.
Reputations, though, count for little as Italy discovered at the group stage in 2007 when an opening-day defeat by Serbia heralded their early exit. Serbia went on to reach the final and, with an experienced side boasting five senior internationals, they are intent on going one better here. Along with Italy, they are the only team to have featured in the last four U21 tournaments and, after losing the 2004 final to the Azzurrini (as Serbia and Montenegro) as well as the 2007 decider, the expectation in Belgrade is that this might just be their year.
In contrast to the experience of Italy and Serbia, Finland have qualified for the first time. Surprise finalists like Belarus, they will be eager to make their mark after surviving a demanding qualification campaign involving 51 countries, which kicked off on 31 May 2007 and concluded nearly 17 months later on 15 October 2008. Both Spain and Germany needed last-gasp goals to win their qualifying play-offs; the Finns were taken to penalties by Austria in theirs.
Tough task ahead
The hard work is only just starting, though, from 15 June, with Finland taking on England, Germany and Spain in Group B. Germany, remarkably, have never been champions at this level, whereas England and Spain boast two titles each. Neither, however, has made it to the final since Spain last won the competition in 1998. Stuart Pearce's side may have added motivation after being knocked out on penalties in the semi-finals two summers ago.
While all eight teams focus on achieving glory in western Sweden, just as important is preparing their young players for the future. Since its inception in 1978, the competition has proved the launch pad for some of Europe's star performers – with Francesco Totti, Raúl González, Luís Figo, Davor Šuker, Petr Čech and Fabio Cannavaro, to name a few, excelling in the event. The knowledge the likes of Theo Walcott, Marcus Berg, Bojan Krkić, Mesut Özil, Sergei Kryvets, Mario Balotelli, Tim Sparv and Gojko Kačar stand to gain will be invaluable as they seek to follow in such illustrious footsteps.