The UEFA European Under-21 Championship begins on Wednesday (watch LIVE on ESPN3 and ESPNU) and, due to the ongoing battle against COVID-19, the tournament being held in Hungary and Slovenia is a bit different to usual.
Firstly, because the senior Euro 2020 tournament has been pushed back to this summer, the U21 Euros start in March instead of June. It’s also in two stages: The group stage from March 24-31 and then the knockout round from May 31-June 6. With only nine days of football in total.
There are no fans for the group stages, but a decision will be made by UEFA on the knockout stages at a later date.
Here’s everything you need to know.
Groups and Schedule
The tournament has increased from 12 to 16 teams this year. There are four groups of four, with the top two from each group progressing to the quarterfinals.
The games will take place in four Hungarian cities (Budapest, Gyor, Szekesfehervar and Szombathely) and four Slovenian ones (Ljubljana, Koper, Maribor, Celje).
Group Stage: March 24-31
Quarterfinals: May 31
1. Winner of Group A vs. Runner-up of Group C
2. Winner of Group C vs. Runner-up of Group A
3. Winner of Group B vs. Runner-up of Group D
4. Winner of Group D vs. Runner-up of Group B
Semifinals: June 3
1. Winner of Quarterfinal 1 vs. Winner of Quarterfinal 2
2. Winner of Quarter-final 3 vs. Winner of Quarter-final 4
Final: June 6
The final is being held at the 16,000-capacity Stadion Stozice in Ljubljana.
Jan Aage Fjortoft says Youssoufa Moukoko is a special talent, but is still influenced by headlines at 16 years old.
Players to watch (by Tor-Kristian Karlsen and David Cartlidge)
The Premier League will be represented with the well-established likes of Chelsea‘s Callum Hudson-Odoi and Arsenal duo Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith Rowe included in the England squad, though Man United Mason Greenwood has pulled out, but who are the stars to watch from each team?
Germany: Youssoufa Moukoko, FW
Already a record breaker at youth level (he’s scored for fun in every age group since he arrived in Germany from Cameroon in 2014), the Dortmund forward became the youngest ever player to make his debut — and later score — in the Bundesliga within the space of a few weeks towards the end of last year. Supremely talented and well-rounded for a 16-year-old, as well as being an excellent finisher with a powerful shot, he’s intelligent off the ball, takes up smart positions and can even set up his teammates. Quick, sharp and excellent one-on-one, he is a potential world beater and the only real top prospect in a somewhat low-key Germany squad. —TKK
Hungary: Botond Balogh, DEF
The imposing Parma defender is calm in possession and excellent in the air. He was thrown in at the deep end to start away at Inter Milan in Serie A last October, just weeks after being promoted from the U19 side. Though Balogh enjoyed a respectable debut, the 18-year-old is yet to start another Serie A game since. One of few foreign-based players in a young Hungary side. — TKK
Netherlands: Myron Boadu, ST
A forward with little else than the opposing goal in mind. The AZ youngster rarely participates in the build-up phase, but is ruthless inside the penalty area. He averages a goal every other game in the Eredivisie, is able to finish from anywhere inside the penalty area and loves running onto deep through-balls. Dynamic and powerful, he only needs little space to pull the trigger. — TKK
Romania: Octavian Popescu, MID
Popescu is probably the talent whose star is rising fastest within the Romanian group. A technically gifted, creative and unpredictable wide midfielder who prefers to cut in from the left, he’s already on the monitor of several elite European clubs. — TKK
Radu Dragusin, DEF: The Juventus defender has been compared in style to Liverpool‘s Virgil van Dijk. A tall, powerful, combative centre-back with leadership qualities, it’s easy to see why the 6-foot-2 star looks up to the Dutchman. His performances from the backline will be vital should Romania progress. — DC
Czech Republic: Adam Karabec, AM
Long recognised as one of the top talents in the country after progressing steadily though the Sparta Prague academy. A tall, strong, box-to-box midfielder with an excellent left-foot, he scored several spectacular long-range stunners at youth level. Netted in his two last league appearances before joining up with the U21 national side. Also capped at senior level. — TKK
Italy: Gianluca Scamacca, ST
Scamacca has been the recent difference maker for Italy. The 22-year-old frontman started the season in fine form, scoring goals for Genoa as well as the U21 national side, but only just broke a 14-game barren spell with a brace in Serie A at the weekend. His game can falter if his confidence dips but Scamacca, who spent two years at the PSV academy as a teenager, can be a handful with his aerial power and strength. — TKK
Sandro Tonali, MID: Expect the graceful Tonali to sit at the base of the Italy midfield, looking to both break up play and initiate attacks. Perhaps the most exciting thing about the AC Milan loanee’s game is his dribbling ability and confidence to drive through midfield with the ball at his feet. — DC
Slovenia: Nik Prelec, ST
The 19-year-old is one of the few prospective top league players from a Slovenia squad missing a couple of their best players to senior national team duty. Prelec, a left-footed centre forward, has only recently been drafted into the U21 squad, but stood out in the younger age groups and is developing well with Sampdoria‘s Primavera side. — TKK
Spain: Riqui Puig, MID
Despite making his first-team debut two years ago (to great fanfare), the wonderfully gifted Barcelona midfielder has still only started nine La Liga games. Nevertheless he’s expected to be among the main attractions of these U21 finals. Brilliant on the ball and blessed with great vision and creativity, the 19-year-old would be arguably be a regular in most other teams in a “Top Five” league. — TKK
Denmark: Victor Nelsson, DEF
The captain of the Danish side has already been capped at senior level and is being courted by clubs from the European top leagues (FC Copenhagen always drive a hard bargain, which is likely to be the reason why he’s still there). A determined, strong-minded centre-back with nearly 150 league appearances, he has won an impressive 75% of his aerial challenges this season. — TKK
Jacob Bruun Larsen, FW: An ex-Borussia Dortmund prospect, Larsen is a quick, dynamic winger that has a touch of old school wide play about his game. He uses his speed and direct attacking style to drive at defences, aiming to move into the penalty area and set up teammates with cutbacks. — DC
France: Eduardo Camavinga, MID
Two years and 60 games on from his Ligue 1 debut, the Rennes midfielder is one of the most promising teenagers in world football. Initially fielded as a holding player, Camavinga has also occasionally featured in the No. 8 role this season. Left-footed, excellent on the ball and with a game intelligence well beyond his years, the 18-year-old marked his second (of three) full caps by getting on the scoresheet against Ukraine last October. A delightfully agile player, able to dictate and influence the rhythm of the game. — TKK
Amine Gouiri, FW: Without doubt one of the most exciting young players in Europe right now. Comparisons in style to Real Madrid‘s Karim Benzema are clear, with Gouri extremely strong at driving in from wide areas with his exquisite skill and slalom runs. The Nice man is extremely graceful when running with the ball and he’s also got an eye for goal. — DC
Iceland: Isak Bergmann Johannesson, MID
The Icelandic prodigy opted to stay with IFK Norrkoping to play first-team football instead of joining an academy elsewhere in Europe (pick a top club in the Champions League and chances are they’ve offered him a contract.) Now, following a successful full season in the Allsvenskan, it’s unlikely that he’ll hang around in Sweden for much longer. He plays the game with an ease uncommon for a teenager — whether fielded as a box-to-box midfielder or a winger (or any other position for that matter), he’s never in a hurry and his off-the-ball movement is exceptional. A remarkably complete player for his age — not dissimilar to a teenage Kevin De Bruyne. — TKK
Russia: Arsen Zakharyan, MID
While teammate Fedor Chalov has emerged as one of Russia’s most eye-catching forwards for quite some time, Zakharyan might turn even more heads during the tournament. An amazingly gifted No. 8 in the mould of Andres Iniesta, with his turns, change of pace, ability to pick up space between the lines and pass, execute and control with either foot, the Dynamo Moscow star is a pure joy to watch. — TKK
Ivan Oblyakov, MID: A key player for the U21 side and also his club CSKA Moscow. His presence in midfield is perhaps understated, as he keenly looks to knit play together, distributing the ball and making sure his team retains possession. But he is a very enjoyable player to watch. — DC
Croatia: Domagoj Bradaric, DEF
The Lille left-back is probably the most accomplished player in an unusually unspectacular crop of Croatians. Though a respected full-back in French football, he has struggled to keep his place this season due to adverse form, a few decisive personal errors and limited attacking contribution. Even so, Bradaric is still considered as one of the up-and-coming left-backs in European football. — TKK
England: Max Aarons, DEF
In a side packed with semi-established Premier League names, the enthusiastic Norwich right-back is dependable and consistent, rarely missing a fixture. With his energy — which he maintains throughout the game — and fine balance between defending and getting into forward positions, the 21-year-old is the best right-back going into the tournament and has been linked with Barcelona and Bayern Munich in recent months. — TKK
Portugal: Pedro Goncalves, MID
“Pote,” 22, is the Primeira Liga top scorer and could count himself unlucky for not earning a first full cap after a sensational season with runaway league leaders Sporting CP. The midfielder, whose stint at Wolves amounted to one League Cup substitute appearance, is outstanding at timing deep runs into the box and finding the net, often with a one-touch finish. While he rarely involves himself early in the build-up play, he’s a tactically smart player, full of clever movement and the ability to pick the right spaces. — TKK
Switzerland: Leonidas Stergiou, CB
Though Swiss head coach Mauro Lustrinelli might opt for an older pairing in the heart of defence, Stergiou is a reliable alternative worth keeping an eye out for. Despite having just turned 19 this month, he has already clocked up 68 starting appearances in the Swiss Super League for St. Gallen. A quick, athletic defender, who can also deputise at right-back, he’s skilled at winning the ball high up the pitch and is composed in possession. — TKK
Andi Zeqiri, ST: Already snapped up by Premier League outfit Brighton, Zeqiri is someone the Swiss will be looking to for support in attack having scored 11 goals in 13 games. He looks to press opponents and force errors, but also has fine striker instincts and is very smart in the penalty area. — DC.