More Football? A Look At The Under-21 European Championships

Laurence Griffiths

The summer used to mean a break from the beautiful game, but nowadays it has cunning ways of luring us back in.

Just when you thought football had gone into warm-weather hibernation for a few months, so surfaces the international game with the Under-21 European Championships at the forefront over the next two weeks.

There is enough talent in the competition to pique even the most casual of interest; Euro 2012 star Alan Dzagoev is a somewhat surprise inclusion in Russia's 23-man squad and he will face the likes of Isco and Lewis Holtby in what looks a hugely competitive Group B.

From a Sunderland perspective, Connor Wickham is included in England's conglomerate, along with last season loanee Danny Rose and Academy product Jordan Henderson. Just to further persuade, the young Lions' opening game on Wednesday is against Italy, for whom Lorenzo Insigne is expected to start after being tentatively linked to the club last week.

In what appears to be the more-straightforward group, even accounting for the hosts Israel, England will fancy their chances of progressing - mostly relying on the solid foundations that enabled them to top their qualifying group (they conceded just three goals in the process of winning 7/8 group games, with two 1-0 victories against Serbia in the play-off).

Stuart Pearce's squad is not as experienced as it has been in the past at this level, but Wilfried Zaha, Tom Ince and Nathaniel Chalobah in particular are exciting prospects that can thrive should England retain the same solidity as a unit. Ahead of them, Wickham is the most experienced forward in the squad and his goals in qualifying could well prove to be key in determining who starts the tournament. A solid, injury-free campaign would transition smoothly into returning for pre-season on Wearside.

On the other side of the draw, Germany will be duly examined following the recent success of its domestic teams in Europe. Forwards Kevin Volland and Patrick Herrmann each got six goals in Bundesliga last season - for Hoffenheim and Borussia Mönchengladbach respectively - whilst the latter's club team-mate Luuk de Jong will be Netherlands' most likely source of goals. That the last four winners of this competition all feature in the same group (2011: Spain, 2009: Germany, Holland in 2006 and 2007) amplifies the pressure on a German side expected to surf the next wave of forthcoming attention.

Spain is in a similar position, from a perception standpoint, but also is looking to replicate Holland's feat by retaining the crown. Their cause is aided by having the most experienced squad in the competition - eight of the squad featured in the Champions League last season with their clubs - with a number of players returning after the 2011 triumph. Iker Muniain and Sergio Canales will both be striving to rectify poor seasons for their clubs, and the aforementioned Isco has another opportunity to impress with clubs in England hoping to sign him.

Whether it be cheering England on, hoping Wickham does well and comes through unscathed or keeping an eye on a hotly-tipped youngster, there is enough reason to indulge in just a little more football.

Later in the week we'll cast an eye over anyone that Sunderland could or should be looking at.

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