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UEFA U21 Championships –players to keep an eye on.

Sunday 19th June 2011
Chris Smalling/Phil Jones (England)

Due to recent events (which you'd have to have been living under a rock not to hear about) this could be one of the most interesting partnerships we've ever seen on an under-21 stage. Not only does England's defensive solidity hinge on the performances of the two centre-backs, but it could also be a peek at the future of Manchester United. With Jones' big-money move to United imminent, as well as Smalling's excellent form when called upon, we could be looking at the partnership that will guide United to success for the next 10-15 years. Bar a few minor errors the pair have been superb so far - they've shown excellent composure, desire and understanding of each other's game to earn many plaudits from England fans. Infact, I personally believe Smalling has been the outstanding player for the Young Lions so far.

Of course, watching how the duo fair won't only appeal to United fans. I'm sure fans of Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea will be watching with a keen eye for any mistakes, too.

Tomas Pekhart (Czech Republic)

With England's game against the Czech Republic tonight a must-win, Tomas Pekhart could be the man to break English hearts. Tottenham fans may - or may not - remember Pekhart, as he scored 19 goals in 20 appearances during his spell in Tottenham's academy team. A series of injuries scuppered his progress and he was forced to move on, but since then he has flourished. Standing nearly 6'5” he's an excellent target man, but also has quick feet, neat passing, pace and outstanding off-the-ball movement that you only see in a world class forward. At club level the 22-year-old has been on fire this season, scoring 22 goals in 38 games playing for Sparta Prague and FK Baumit Jablonec - making him without question one of the top young strikers in the world. He also scored 9 goals in the qualification rounds for this tournament, including 6 against San Marino, and is the Czech Republic's all-time leading under-21 goal scorer, with 16.

Watch him closely, if your eyes can keep up.

Xherdan Shaqiri (Switzerland)

Anyone that witnessed either of England's Euro 2012 qualifiers against Switzerland will know why he's included in this list. In the first game between the two, in Switzerland, he scored the Swiss' only goal in a 3-1 loss to England. In the second game at Wembley he didn't find the net, but tested Joe Hart 5 times by finding space to curl shots from outside the area. Now, if he can do that against the senior England team, imagine what he could do to our under-21's…

The 19-year-old Basel midfielder has been in absolutely superb form for the Swiss under-21 side so far, scoring once and assisting once as they brushed aside hosts Denmark, Belarus and Iceland to top group A.

Keep a really close watch on him in the semi-final/final, he's truly a star in the making.

Stanislav Dragun (Belarus)

Belarus scraped through the group stages by the skin of their teeth, edging Iceland and Denmark on goals conceded after the three were locked on 3 points each. The Belarusian way of playing seems to be based around defensive solidity and pacey counter attacking, mostly through Dragun. Belarus have only scored 3 goals in the whole competition and the Dinamo Minsk midfielder has been at the heart of 2 of them. The first, against Iceland, came completely against the run of play when Dragun made a brilliant (and lucky at times) solo run into the penalty area which ended in him getting fouled just before he pulled the trigger. The penalty was converted and Belarus won the game 2-0. The second, against Denmark, was a pin-point-accurate chipped through ball that stars such as Xavi or Fabregas would have been proud of.

If Belarus are going to have any hope in the semi-final, you'd be safe to bet on it that it will come from Dragun.

Juan Manuel Mata (Spain)

A lot of people (mainly Liverpool fans) have asked me questions about Mata in recent weeks. Can he cut it in the Premier League? Does he have the potential to be world-class? Is all the hype surrounding him really necessary? Yes, yes and yes again. Juan Mata is a World Cup winner. Surely, that speaks for itself…

Before the competition he was tipped to be the outstanding player and also the third favourite to win the Golden Boot – from midfield. There are around 35 strikers in the tournament, but only two of them – Bojan and Sturridge – were rated more likely than him to score goals. The creative spark that he offers the Spain midfield is parallel to that of his fellow countrymen Xavi and Iniesta in the senior team. In their last game, against the Czech Republic, Mata provided both assists as Adrian scored twice in a 2-0 win.

Spain are the massive favourites to win the tournament, and a lot of those expectations are down to Mata.

Javi Martinez (Spain)

The driving force of the Spain team. Like Juan Mata, Athletic Bilbao's Javi Martinez was in the senior World Cup winning squad and brings masses of experience. Standing 6'3” and dwarfing most of the Spain team, the central midfielders is strong, quick, a great tackler and an even better passer. He has been compared to ex-Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira for his box-to-box style of play – which isn't a bad comparison to draw.

Keep an eye on him, as he could be making a move to a big European club and challenging Busquets for a role in the Spain senior team very soon.

David De Gea (Spain)

By far one of the best young goalkeepers in the world, David De Gea has been first choice at Athletico Madrid for almost two years – and he's still only 20. When you think of Spain you think of flair, technique and guile in the midfield, but you should also spare a thought for their unsung heroes at the back. Anyone who's anyone will tell you that you can't win anything without a top-class goalkeeper, and Spain have one in De Gea without a doubt.

He has been linked with a big-money move to Manchester United recently, where it goes without saying he has some big gloves to fill.

Bojan Krkic (Spain)

Before the tournament I saw this as make-or-break time for Bojan, with Barcelona trying to sign both Villareal's Giuseppe Rossi and Udinese's Alexis Sanchez. He needed to get out there on the European stage and show exactly why he should be kept on the books in Catalonia. Unfortunately for him, failure to be picked to start in both of Spain's group games so far seems to have decided Barcelona, and a transfer to Serie A giants Roma is seemingly a done-deal.

I'd still say keep an eye on him, though, because if he does get his chance he's likely to want to do everything he can do to take it.
Tom Todhunter

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