Monday, June 13, 2011

Among the starlets

I'm in Denmark watching Europe's "stars of today, superstars of tomorrow" as UEFA bills their biennial Under-21 Championship.

Two years ago I saw Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and friends announce themselves before going on to star for Germany at the World Cup. As UEFA keeps reminding us, this tournament has previously showcased the likes of Eric Cantona, Xavi and Zinedine Zidane.

Looking back at the list I made in 2009 of the boys to watch out for in the future, I am conscious of the fickle nature of prediction, or perhaps just my own cock-eye for talent. Call it the 'Adu syndrome', we never learn that some players peak in their teens while others rise in their early to mid-twenties.

I was sure Ozil & Mario Balotelli were heading for greener pastures, but some of my other tips have not quite set the world on fire: Sweden's Marcus Berg looked a goal-machine last time around and duly signed a five-year deal with Hamburg that summer, but a paltry return of four in 30 games in the Bundesliga suggests he might not cut it at the highest level.

England winger Andrew Driver looked amazing in his U21 debut in 2009, but never won another cap and duly ignored, recently pledged his allegiance to Scotland. Likewise, Serbian winger Zoran Tosic was another livewire but could not force his way into Manchester United's regulars and now plays for CSKA Moscow. He made it to South Africa, where he saw 28 minutes on the field. Fellow Serb Gojko Kacar also graduated to the 2010 World Cup, but teammate Nikola Petkovic has fallen away, and at the age of 25 now plays in the elephants' graveyard of Saudi Arabia having failed to establish himself with Eintracht Frankfurt.

And the others? Finland's Teemu Pukki fell out of favour with Sevilla and now plays with HJK Helsinki, Belarus' Sergei Kryvets plys his trade with Lech Poznan while Rasmus Elm has won 15 caps for Sweden, 13 more than compatriot Gustav Svensson, who plays for Bursaspor in Turkey.

Sweden's Ola Toivonen has been a success at PSV with 34 goals in 75 appearances since Euro 2009, Sebastiano Giovinco finally made his debut for the Azzurri this year, while Javi Martinez is still one to follow, as he is still only 22, and played 20 minutes in South Africa for the eventual World Cup winners.

England showed up in 2009 with an impressive lineup of Premier League stars, with Adam Johnson, James Milner & Theo Walcott now England regulars along with goalkeeper Joe Hart. They might have lost Jack Wilshere and Andy Carroll before kicking a ball, but on Monday's evidence their team has gone downhill anyway.

A mixed bag therefore, which leaves me wary of tipping anyone again.

Having attended England v Spain yesterday (1-1) all I can say is that England's star performer was their marauding right-back Kyle Walker (of Tottenham) and Spain's estrellita, Martinez apart, was their nimble attacking midfielder from the Barcelona B ranks, Thiago Alcantara, who looks good enough to slot into the blaugrana first eleven before long.

The hosts lost their first game to Switzerland, whose impressive Xherdan Shaqiri eclipsed the Danes' Ajax starlet Christian Eriksen. Much-fancied Iceland fell 2-0 to Belarus, while the Czech Republic, another hotly-tipped team, edged out Ukraine 2-1.

-Sean O'Conor, Copenhagen

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