Window of opportunity opens for U21 hopefuls

Seven of the eight UEFA European Under-21 Championship finalists are in friendly action this week and a spate of squad withdrawals spells an opportunity for fringe players to impress.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (right) is one the brightest prospects in English football
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (right) is one the brightest prospects in English football ©Getty Images

This week could give some of Europe's less likely lads the opportunity to push for a place at June's UEFA European Under-21 Championship finals in Denmark.

Seven of the finalists are in friendly action but with several coaches having to cope with lengthy absentee lists, it may be the moment for fringe players to stake their claim. That was the message from England coach Stuart Pearce who described his team's visit to Italy on Tuesday as the opportunity for hopefuls "to impress upon the coaching staff their credentials for a place on the plane to Denmark".

Pearce has lost six defenders after Liverpool FC full-back Martin Kelly withdrew on Sunday, following the lead of Kieran Gibbs, Micah Richards, Chris Smalling, Kyle Walker and James Tomkins. "We're missing a number of players through injury, but it will give me a chance to look at a few new players," said Pearce, who has drafted in Middlesbrough FC defender Joe Bennett together with Burnley FC forward Jay Rodriguez and Southampton FC winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

England's meeting with Italy is one of three games on Tuesday involving U21 contenders. Hosts Denmark visit fellow finalists Spain without their captain Andreas Bjelland, the centre-back's absence with a knee injury spelling an opportunity for Brøndby IF's Daniel Stenderup. Spain coach Luis Milla, meanwhile, has replaced injured Valencia CF striker Juan Mata with RCD Mallorca's Emilio Nsue for a match that could provide a potential semi-final in June. "We know that they are a tough side with some very good players," he said.

Belarus, meanwhile, meet a Turkey B side – comprising players born between 1987 and '89 – in Antalya, in the first of two friendly games on successive days. Coach Georgi Kondratyev is missing injured striker Andrei Voronkov.

Ukraine coach Pavlo Yakovenko is in a similar position to his England counterpart Pearce for their home match on Wednesday against Switzerland, having lost five first-choice players. FC Dynamo Kyiv attackers Andriy Yarmolenko, Roman Zozulya and Artem Kravets, and midfielders Taras Stepanenko and Mykola Morozyuk are all on senior duty, but Yevhen Novak – another Dynamo player – rejoins the U21s for the first time since March 2009.

Switzerland coach Pierluigi Tami expects an "interesting test". He said: "They are playing good football and we could meet them again in the finals [after the group stage]. I will not try any experiments as we simply don't have enough time." Tami has lost defender François Affolter to the seniors but has called up not a single new face.

The Czech Republic, finally, travel to the Netherlands with just one of coach Jakub Dovalil's first-choice forwards – S.S. Lazio's Libor Kozák – available. Tomáš Pekhart, the top scorer in qualifying, is absent along with Václav Kadlec and Jan Vošahlík. Dovalil, who has given a first call-up to defender Pavel Čmovš of Dutch side SC Veendam, said: "The Dutch are the first of three strong opponents [with Belarus and France to follow] who which will indicate our prospects at the finals."