With the latest European Under-21 Championship about to get underway, we look at five things England fans need to know ahead of the tournament.
After England U20s ended 51 years of hurt to bring the trophy home from the Under-20 World Cup in South Korea at the weekend, it is now the turn of Aidy Boothroyd’s Under-21s to keep the nation dreaming of senior glory in the near future.
With the Young Lions getting their European Under-21 Championship campaign up and running against Sweden on Friday on the tournament’s opening day, before then facing Slovakia and hosts Poland in Group A, here are the burning issues England fans must be aware of before the competition gets underway.
Plenty of experience in the ranks
England have taken a really strong squad to the tournament, with three senior internationals – Calum Chambers, Nathan Redmond and James Ward-Prowse – providing a backbone to a team that has performed cohesively at this level on a regular basis.
Then, with highly-rated goalkeeper Jordan Pickford likely to be between the sticks, Arsenal defender Rob Holding – who has become a firm fixture in Arsene Wenger’s first-team plans, goal machine Tammy Abraham and the trickery of Demarai Gray at Boothroyd’s disposal, they have the artillery to succeed in Poland.
A woeful recent record looms large
The first six editions of the European Under-21 Championships heralded two title triumphs and four semi-final appearances under the tutelage of Dave Sexton, but the Young Lions have finished runners-up once and reached the semi-finals just once since.
In the last three tournaments, England have won just one game, and scored just five goals in nine games, finishing bottom of the group each time.
Last time out, much fuss was made of Gareth Southgate’s decision to bring Harry Kane along to the Czech Republic, with allegations of putting Kane in danger of burnout thrown the rookie boss’s way. It backfired, as Kane had little impact as England won one game against Sweden, but lost to Italy and Portugal to finish bottom of the group.
New, tough format to overcome
Qualification for the semi-finals just got that little bit more difficult. The tournament will contain an expanded field of 12 teams, up from the eight that have competed at every edition since 2000.
Each team plays the other three sides in their group, with the nation finishing top of each group guaranteed to progress to the last four. The runner-up with the best record will join the group winners in the last four. So you can finish second, have a decent tournament, and still not make the last four. Harsh.
Not you, again
Spain’s incredible strength in depth means La Rojita are quite rightly tournament favourites with Sky Bet, with the likes of Saul Niguez and Hector Bellerin in their ranks, but Germany are close behind in the betting market, and are primed and ready to break English hearts once more.
Germany had the best record in qualification, winning 10 games out of 10 for a perfect 30 points. They scored 35 goals and conceded just eight and were equally impressive home and away, failing to net four times in only one game on home turf and keeping a clean sheet in four of their five fixtures on the road.
Several big guns have missed out, though, with France and the Netherlands left at home, having been topped by Macedonia and Slovakia in their qualification groups.
England spared Isak threat
Much has been made of the latest Borussia Dortmund acquisition Alexander Isak. The Bundesliga side are famed for taking the talents of exciting youngsters and nurturing them on the path to success, and obviously have such grand plans for Isak, having splurged £10m on the embryonic forward.
However, Sweden U21 coach Hakan Ericson has decided this tournament has come too soon for Isak, who has been left at home. Sunderland’s Joel Asoro is in the squad, and could face England on Friday.