10 stars to light up U-21 European Championship

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Lewis Baker, England

Lewis Baker inadvertently made headlines late last year simply by being one of the then-38 Chelsea players out on loan. though it wasn’t long before his football was elevating him towards the top of the scrapheap of talented blues outcasts looking to impress their employers. A dynamic two-footed creative midfielder, Baker helped guide Dutch club and Chelsea loanee repository – Vitesse - to fifth in the Eredivisie. He contributed ten goals, numerous assists and played a vital part in the club’s run to the KNVB Cup final.

Gianluigi Donnarumma, Italy

Donnarumma will take a break from the circus that is his hitherto unsigned contract extension at AC Milan, to anchor Italy’s defence in Poland. Tall, athletic and still two years away from notching his second decade on earth, Donnarumma is seen as the natural heir to Gianluigi Buffon and like the Juventus veteran, could be the difference for Italy in a difficult group that includes Germany.

Ruben Neves, Portugal

When Ruben Neves unleashes his right peg, it’s easy to see why the Porto midfielder gets compared to England legend Paul Scholes. Operating in a deep-lying holding midfielder role, Neves launches attacks with his pin-point long passing game and possesses a stinging shot from range. With the likes of Neves, Bayern Munich star Renato Sanches PSG young gun Goncalo Guedes and RB Leipzig recruit Bruma operating in a midfield to rival the senior team’s, it’s easy to see why Portugal is one of the favourites.

 

Hector Bellerin, Spain

Bellerin is worth watching for far more than the samurai-style hipster bro knot that occasionally graces the top of his head like a thought bubble that got stuck on the way out. He’s fast, skilful and blessed with play-making abilities that have elevated him to one of Arsenal’s most important players. A graduate of Barcelona’s La Masia football factory, Bellerin has reinvented himself as a defender in England and will lead Spain’s defence with the Catalan club reportedly keen to bring him back to plug its troublesome hole at right back.

 

Serge Gnabry, Germany

Serge Gnabry will doubtless be keen to celebrate his recent move to Bayern Munich with a strong performance in Poland.  Of course, star turns in the national colours are not a foreign concept for the 21 year-old, who finished as Germany’s joint top-scorer at the 2016 Olympics. He also nabbed a handy hat-trick on debut for the senior team this year. With a blistering turn of pace – Gnabry was Werder Bremen’s fastest player this season – and an eye for goal, becoming the first player to score 10 of them away for Bremen in a season, the man who made his debut for Arsenal five years ago, will be a key to Germany’s chances.

 

Patrik Schick, Czech Republic

Schick is about to become Juventus’s latest signing and on evidence of the season he just had for Sampdoria, it’s easy to see why. The sublimely skilled big man loves taking on defenders, has enough flicks, tricks and turns to conjure images of a youthful Zlatan ibrahimovic, and knows how to find the net - scoring 11 goals in his debut Serie A season, for Sampdoria. Capped three times for Czech Republic’s senior team, it’s against players his own age where the 6’2 behemoth excels. Schick has scored 10 goals from nine games at under-21 level and will lead the line for Czech Republic in arguably the tournament's toughest group, including Germany, Italy and Denmark.

 

Mahmoud Dahoud, Germany

Syria-born Dahoud has drawn comparisons to Xavi for his visionary passing and composure on the ball. Surprise, surprise, he’s been linked with a move to Manchester City. Blessed with a slight of foot, the hard-working Monchengladbach midfielder would not look out of place in the engine room of a Premier League club.

Laszlo Benes, Slovakia

Hyped as the new Marek Hamsik, Benes possesses many of the qualities of his oft mo-hawked compatriot, including intricate dribbling skills, a lethal shot and the ability to create chances for the players around him. After a difficult club season where he struggled for opportunities at Borussia Monchengladbach, Benes will be eager to prove himself against England, Poland and Sweden in Group A.

 

Andrija Zivkovic, Serbia

The diminutive winger boasts the record for the youngest Serbian player to be capped at senior level, making his debut four years ago at 17 years-old. Like a lot of wingers he has pace and skill to burn, but unlike many, he also possesses the ability to score from the flanks and is a dangerous set piece specialist. Those skills can occasionally be offset by bouts of inconsistency, which has hampered Zivkovic from making the step up at Benfica this season. That said, if he can reproduce the form that helped Serbia to an historic World U-20 championship win two years ago, the nation will again be a force here.  

 

Bartlomiej Dragowski, Poland

Fresh from making his Fiorentina debut, the 18 year-old rising Poland star is key to his team's hopes on home soil. Perhaps unsurprisingly compared to compatriot Wojciech Szczesny, Dragowski's positioning and agility make him one to watch when the action gets underway on Saturday.