To kick off my coverage of this summer's Under-21 European Championships, it must be said that it can often be a window into the potential of many of the players on show, and with that in mind here are five of the best young stars that will be playing in a tournament littered with growing reputations.
Iñigo Martinez (Spain)
Key to his side’s stellar season in assuring Champions League football in San Sebastián next season, the Real Sociedad defender has been touted as a future Spain centre-back by many. Possessing decent pace and a natural ability to read the game, Martinez also has a hidden talent. He has seven league goals to his name in a short career so far, with two of them coming from David Beckham vs. Wimbledon territory, and one a 90th minute winner at Real Betis. Goalscoring exploits aside, Martinez has established himself as one of the best young defenders in Spain and the 22 year-old will look to bring his mature domestic displays to the international stage as the Spaniards – profuse with talent like Isco, Iker Muniain and Cristian Tello – hope to defend their title in Israel.
Adam Maher (Netherlands)
A 19 year-old attacking midfielder making considerable waves across the North Sea with AZ Alkmaar, Maher won the Johan Cruyff Award (aka Best Young Player) for the 2011-12 Eredivisie season, previously won by household names such as Sneijder, Robben, van Persie et al. Presumably the first of many accolades for Maher, the midfielder combines the quickness of thought on the ball of players like Andres Iniesta with the kind of flair evident in the boots of players like Philippe Coutinho. Not a bad combination, and one that has seen the youngster rack up more than 60 appearances for AZ already, and plenty more admirers in the process. Arguably the most coveted talent on show in Israel this June.
Sebastian Rode (Germany)
Thirteen years after the disaster that was Euro 2000, Germany are reaping the rewards of the youth development system that became gospel in the aftermath. As a result, choosing one of the squad to mention in depth is difficult, but Sebastian Rode is certainly a worthy contender. A fine defensive midfielder with a knack for breaking up possession like compatriot Bastian Schweinsteiger, Rode’s performances for Eintracht Frankfurt this season mean that he will be calling Schweinsteiger teammate as well as compatriot following a move to Champions League winners Bayern Munich. Not a bad bit of business for Bayern, who acquire a strong holder that recycles possession well, and isn’t afraid to drive forward when the chance arises. Expect to see Rode excelling in the heart of Germany’s midfield alongside the likes of Lewis Holtby and Sebastian Rudy.
Aleksandr Kokorin (Russia)
Tall and powerful are two of the many adjectives that Kokorin has been labelled with so far in his early career. The Dynamo Moscow hitman has been filling column inches ever since his debut, and not just when he’s being heralded as Russia’s next star. The 6ft striker is never too far from controversy, with ferocious tackles and referee disputes aplenty leading one newspaper to brand him as “Russia’s Balotelli.” Kokorin even dismisses his hot-headedness as ‘passion,’ reminiscent of the enigmatic Italian. Away from comparisons, what Kokorin can provide is a an aerial threat to worry even the tallest centre-half, and hold up play which will benefit attack-minded teammates like Alan Dzagoev and Fyodor Smolov. He’s not bad in front of goal either, with 12 goals in 21 appearances for Dynamo this season. He’s a gamble, but one that could certainly pay off – now who does that remind you of?
Lorenzo Insigne (Italy)
Completing the list is Napoli attacker Lorenzo Insigne. Short of frame but compensating in confidence, the diminutive Italian is comfortable both out wide and off the striker. Which is handy, considering his body balance drawing comparisons with a couple of reasonably famous Argentinian number tens, and dribbling ability which isn’t too far off the same Argentinians. Electric pace and a keen eye for a through ball, or how to get on the end of a teammate’s through ball have made Insigne one of Napoli’s key players as the Naples outfit impressed in finishing 2nd in Serie A this term. Playing with Insigne in Israel are a host of talented attackers and midfielders, with the presence of Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Marco Verratti and Alessandro Florenzi in the squad meaning Italy are high in the tipsters’ choices for glory come June 18th.
Notable mentions also go to: Nir Biton (Israel), Magnus Wolff Eikrem (Norway), Emre Can (Germany), Nathaniel Chalobah (England), Bernd Leno (Germany), Bruno Martins Indi (Netherlands) and Maxim Kannunikov (Russia).