The U-21 European Championships now enter the semifinals, and over the course of the first 12 games, rising stars have emerged to capture our attentions.
Italy, Spain, Netherlands and Norway will contest in the penultimate round of games, and among them some seriously impressive prospects have come to the fore.
Here, Discount Football Kits will profile the top five youngsters to have made an impression in the tournament, but we’re not simply going to regurgitate the usual big names.
Each tournament highlights new prospects, so no Thiago Alcantaras or Wilfried Zaha’s here; We’re looking for the rough gems, the unknowns.
Real Sociedad’s holding midfield star Asier Illarramendi put in two phenomenal Group Stage performances to ease his nation into the semifinals.
Many eyes were drawn to the attacking delights of Isco and Thiago, but it was Illarramendi’s brilliance in front of the back four that impressed us.
He is positionally excellent, puts in a crunching tackle when necessary and passes well between the lines.
Rather than hamper his side by recycling easy possession to his centre-backs and full-backs, eventually forcing the longer punt, he plays proactive passes between the lines á la Sergio Busquets to start attacks from deep.
Norway have shocked those who don’t follow youth football in its entirety, reaching the semifinals at the expense of England and hosts Israel.
Only a last-minute equaliser from Italy stopped the Drillos from claiming top spot in Group A, and they matched Italy even without key player Magnus Eikrem, who was rested.
Eikrem plays his domestic football for Molde in Norway under the stewardship of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. He’s diminutive in stature, but picks a pass superbly and controls the ball with ease.
He’s strictly a central player due to his lack of physical attributes, but he can change up the tempo, has superb vision and makes good late runs into the penalty area á la Frank Lampard.
His career progression will be an interesting watch.
Morata came into the competition as an uncapped wildcard.
Real Madrid fans love his attitude and were delighted to see him break into the first-team this season, and now Jose Mourinho has gone, he might have a fighting chance of sticking around as a permanent fixture.
He was used as a substitute in Spain’s opening two games but scored in each, providing a wonderful stylistic change to starter Rodrigo.
Where Rodrigo would make generic runs and offer generic passes, Morata would bend, shimmy and shake the defence into submission.
His clever play in the box is akin to Raul’s, and playing with intelligent, clever midfielders has given him the chance to profit from his ingenuity.
He made it three in three against the Netherlands—a very impressive feat for one so inexperienced.
Havard Nordtveit is our second Norwegian player to feature, and that’s testament to the good job Tor Ole Skullerud is doing as coach of the Drillos.
Nordtveit, once captain of the impressive Arsenal youth academy, slipped off the map when he left for Borussia Moenchengladbach in 2010.
But the side’s good form in the Bundesliga has seen him re-enter our screens, and in a new position too: Once a commanding, vocal centre-back, he’s now a midfield anchor and short pass master who only fills in at the back when necessary.
He’s played both positions so far in this tournament and still represents every aspect of the classy, tidy prospect Arsene Wenger had four years ago. He’s so stable at the base of midfield, Gunners fans might be asking whether it was a wise idea to let him go.
After making a slow start to the season under the pressure of a hefty price tag, John has prospered in an attack-minded system at Benfica.
He’s adapted seamlessly to a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 formation—all shapes that require him to do different things.
His playing style is odd—languid movements give him the appearance of a slow, graceful winger, but in reality he’s lightning fast, razor sharp.
He operates primarily from the left as a traditional winger, feeding attacking outlet Luuk de Jong with ease and interacting with the central midfield maestros.
WhoScored? have clocked him at an astonishing 5 key passes made in just 2 games, two of which turned into assists. He’s also bagged himself a goal.