UEFA European Under-21 championship preview: Spain favorites to retain title

Michael Steele

The biennial Euro U-21 Championship kicks off in Israel on Wednesday, and Spain are early favourites.

La Roja are looking to defend the title they won back in 2011, though face tough competition from the Netherlands, Germany and England, while Italy -- who have tasted success in this tournament more than any other nation -- could collect their sixth title.

Group A

Israel

Not much is expected from the tournament's hosts, who failed to score a single goal the last time they were in this competition back in 2007. However, they only suffered narrow 2-1 defeats in pre-tournament friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany in March, with the former being their first loss in six games. Their squad is made up of almost entirely domestic-based players, with only Fulham forward Omri Altman playing outside of Israel. Striker Orr Barouch netted four times in six games in a successful run of friendlies last year, and could be their man to watch.

England

Stuart Pearce's side topped their group before seeing off Serbia 2-0 in the playoff final to qualify, and are on an excellent run of form. Expected to progress to the semi-finals, they've brought a selection of Premier League players, with Steven Caulker and Craig Dawson of Tottenham and West Brom leading a strong defence. Other names to watch include Manchester United's new winger Wilfried Zaha and Chelsea midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, who has been outstanding on loan at Watford this season. Whether they have quite what it takes to win, though, remains to be seen.

Norway

Norway finished runners-up to England in qualifying, though made the tournament on a tiebreaker. Their late friendlies haven't gone too well, conceding a combined total of nine goals against the Netherlands and Spain, albeit without a selection of their key players. Unfortunately they'll be hindered with the absences of Borussia Mönchengladbach defender Håvard Nordtveit, FC Salzburg's midfielder Valon Berisha and Blackburn Rovers' striker Joshua King for their opening game against Israel, with the trio fulfilling commitments with the full international side. It's a big blow, as failing to win that game could would make qualifying for the semi-finals even more difficult than it already is.

Italy

Beating Sweden 4-2 in the playoffs after topping their qualifying group, Italy will provide serious competition for any side in the tournament. They bring a string of top-flight players, with their attack looking particularly fearsome. Paris Saint-Germain's playmaker Marco Verratti is the pick of the midfielders, while Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne, AS Roma's Mattia Destro and new AC Milan winger Riccardo Saponara join a whole host of talent up front. Providing their more unproven defence holds up, Italy will be vying for the crown.

Group B

Spain

Spain come into this tournament looking to defend the title they won a couple of years ago, and it's easy to see why they're pre-tournament favourites. Strong from back to front, they have Manchester United's David De Gea playing in goal, in front of a defence dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona. In midfield things look even more scary, with Thiago Alcântara and Málaga's resident wonderkid Isco having already made senior appearances. The same is true of Athletic Club's 'Spanish Messi' Iker Muniain, who'll start in attack.

Netherlands

There are 12 players in the Netherlands squad with senior international experience, which is enough to make them a serious threat. The highlight of their strong team is PSV Eindhoven's well-rounded midfielder Kevin Strootman, who travels to Israel despite having become a permanent fixture for the Oranje's senior side -- and amidst strong rumours of an imminent move to Manchester United. Left-back Daley Blind has also been capped at full international level, and travels to Israel after cementing his place in the Ajax starting eleven. Elsewhere, Luuk De Jong travels looking to make up for a disappointing first season in the Bundesliga with Gladbach. Probably not quite as strong as Spain, they should still put up a good fight.

Germany

Impressively Germany didn't lose a single match in qualifying for this tournament, eventually beating Switzerland in the playoffs. Their recent 1-0 friendly defeat to Italy was their first loss in 14 games, despite their relatively inexperienced setup. Tottenham's midfielder Lewis Holtby is one of their most experienced players, and is the only one included to have made a senior international appearance -- though they've looked to balance this out with the inclusion of several Bundesliga regulars, including Bayer Leverkusen's first-team goalkeeper Bernd Leno. Having not competed in this tournament since they won it in 2009, Germany are an unknown quantity, though will be hoping to at least reach the semi-final.

Russia

On paper the weakest team in group B, Russia head into the tournament on the back of three consecutive defeats, including a couple of March friendlies against Italy and Spain. However, they're not without their danger men. One of the standout performers for the Russian national team in last year's senior European Championship, Alan Dzagoev will make the trip to Israel -- though, along with Aleksandr Kokorin, has commitments to the senior team, rendering the duo unavailable for Russia's opener against Spain. Winger Denis Cheryshev will play that match against a couple of his domestic teammates, as he's contracted to Real Madrid.

Prediction

It's an extremely boring choice, but it's nigh-on impossible to see anyone but Spain winning this tournament. A side brimming with players who're already impressing continentally (with Isco the most pertinent example), they should be able to retain their trophy. I'd take a guess at Italy as the runner-up, with their sheer talent -- and Serie A regulars -- in attack meaning the Azzurrini will be very difficult to shut out.

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