Euro Under-21 Championship: England's hopes & stars to watch

By Ian DennisBBC Radio 5 live senior football reporter
Nathan Redmond, Harry Kane and Danny Ings
Gareth Southgate has plenty of firepower with Nathan Redmond, Harry Kane and Danny Ings
Uefa Under-21 Championship
Location: Czech Republic Dates: 17-30 June
Coverage: Live text and BBC Radio 5 live commentary of all England's games including knockout stage

The European Under-21 Championship starts in the Czech Republic on Wednesday with the host nation playing Denmark in the opening match.

England are one of the eight teams who will be competing in the tournament,external-link which runs from 17 to 30 June and has two groups of four, with the top two from each going through to the semi-finals.

Traditionally an opportunity for us to take an early glance at some future stars, it is a compact and high-quality tournament that should provide plenty of entertainment.

Do England have a chance?

Yes. England travel to the Czech Republic with great expectations and as one of the favourites.

Head coach Gareth Southgate is aware his team are tagged as one of the fancied sides and there is a feeling of anticipation and excitement that this squad could deliver.

"We are going there with genuine belief," said Southgate. "The players have a chance to create some history."

Gareth Southgate
Head coach Gareth Southgate will have victory in mind - England last won at this level in 1984

They were unbeaten in qualifying, winning nine of their 10 fixtures and conceding just twice to top Group 1, and then came through a tricky play-off match against Croatia, winning both legs of their tie 2-1.

Southgate's team lost 3-2 away to France in November in a friendly but that is the only recent negative, with his side chalking up impressive wins against fellow finalists Germany, Czech Republic and Portugal, who they play again in their opening group match on Thursday.

Has Southgate picked his strongest squad?

It is undoubtedly true that England could have taken a stronger squad - with players such as Liverpool's Raheem Sterling, Everton's Ross Barkley and Arsenal duo Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain all eligible for the finals but left at home.

However, it is worth remembering that it is four years since Wilshere last played at this level, Barkley has not featured since Southgate took charge in August 2013 and Sterling has not played for the under-21s since November 2013.

England's group matches
England v Portugal, 18 June (19:45 BST)
Sweden v England, 21 June (17:00 BST)
England v Italy, 24 June (19:45 BST)

Manchester United defender Luke Shaw wanted to feature but is not fit to play.

In addition, Southgate has emphasised the importance of "squad dynamic" - of maintaining the spirit within the group and keeping faith with the majority of players who helped England qualify.

Tottenham's Harry Kane, the highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League during the 2014-15 season with 21 goals, was one of the headline selections.

Southgate has also stuck with the likes of new Liverpool recruit Danny Ings and winger Nathan Redmond, who were crucial in qualifying, though Saido Berahino has pulled out injured.

Is history on England's side?

England have not triumphed at this level since 1984, when the tournament was played under a different format that concluded with a home and away two-legged final.

England defeated France, Italy and Spain in the knockout stages back then to retain the trophy they had won with a final victory over West Germany in 1982.

In qualifying for the Czech Republic, England have reached their fifth successive finals - and no other nation can match that record. However, in 2011 in Denmark and two years later in Israel England failed to get out of their group.

England's European Championship credentials
1978Semi-finalLost to Yugoslavia
1980Semi-finalLost to East Germany
1982ChampionsBeat West Germany
1984ChampionsBeat Spain
1986 Semi-finalLost to Italy
1988Semi-finalLost to France
2007Semi-finalLost to Netherlands
2009FinalLost to Germany

In 2007 it was a case of glorious failure rather than an abject one. I was in Heerenveen in the Netherlands watching as England lost an epic semi final against the host nation.

The match went to a penalty shootout that the Netherlands eventually won 13-12, with Anton Ferdinand missing what proved to be the decisive kick.

Stuart Pearce's England went even closer two years later in Sweden, but were completely outclassed in the final, losing 4-0 to a Germany team that contained players such as Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira.

England's current crop will hope to end the 31-year wait.

How come holders Spain aren't there?

The holders were denied a chance to win the title for a third successive time by Serbia, who defeated the Spaniards in their play-off tie.

The first leg finished goalless but Serbia won 2-1 in Cadiz - a result that ended Spain's 35-match unbeaten run.

In fact, Spain were one of four group winners who will not be in the Czech Republic because of the vagaries of the qualifying system.

The 10 group winners were joined by the four best runners-up and seven two-legged play-off ties took place to determine the seven teams that would join the host nation.

France, Slovakia and Croatia - who lost to England - were the others group winners to miss out.

Who should we watch out for?

Marc Andre Ter Stegen
Barcelona keeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen will provide quality between the posts for Germany

Uefa bills this tournament as somewhere where we can "see the stars of tomorrow, today".

Laurent Blanc, Luis Figo, Fabio Cannavaro, Andrea Pirlo, Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Juan Mata are just some of the players who have shone down the years.

I sincerely believe the stars of the tournament could come from these shores so do not be surprised if Kane, Redmond or Everton defender John Stones (if he recovers from a head injury which will keep him out of the opening game) are added to the glittering array of names.

Further afield there are a few other names to watch out for.

Goalkeeper Marc-Andre Ter Stegen will enhance his credentials with Germany but in front of him watch for Matthias Ginter. When David Moyes was managing in the Premier League, he was watching the 21-year-old. The central defender, who is now at Borussia Dortmund, reads the game well and is comfortable in possession.

Viktor Fischer, Matthias Ginter, William Carvalho
Denmark's Viktor Fischer, German defender Matthias Ginter and Portugal enforcer William Carvalho

Portugal have included eight full internationals in their squad and I'm looking forward to watching William Carvalho. Now aged 23, he will look to exert his authority in his defensive midfield role. He is 6ft 2ins, athletic, boasts excellent positional play and has a reported release clause of £37m written into his contract at Sporting Lisbon.

Danish attacker Viktor Fischer will be desperate to make up for lost time after only returning in April following 14 months out injured. He's is a left-winger with Ajax and has been on the radar of the top clubs in the Premier League for a number of years despite still being only 21.

Another talented player from Denmark who will want to make an impact is Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. He will link up with the under-21s after representing the senior side in their Euro qualifier against Serbia. A tall midfielder with a good range of distribution, he joined Bayern Munich at the age of 17.

What makes the tournament so important?

In addition to being crowned European champions, the four semi-finalists will also automatically qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

However, this becomes slightly more complicated if England reach the last four, as they did in 2007 ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

England compete as Great Britain at the Olympics - although plans for GB teams in Rio have been scrapped - and so there would be a play-off match between the two sides that finished third in the groups.

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