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European Under-21 Championship: 15 players to watch out for

From Rudi Voller to Mark Hateley and Luis Figo to Andrea Pirlo: the European Under-21 Championship has a long tradition of presenting gems with a bright future to the world.

The Under-21 European Championship gets under way today with England playing their first match against Italy this evening. It’s an exciting event which will showcase some of the best young talent Europe has to offer.

Here’s a look at 15 youngsters you should definitely keep an eye on.

Lewis Holtby – Germany

Much of Germany’s play goes through the Tottenham midfielder with the un-showy but highly effective short passing game. Strong on possession retention and tackling, Holtby hopes to shine before truly establishing himself at White Hart Lane next season.

The son of a former British soldier, he also wants to prove that leaving Schalke last January was not the mistake many in the Bundesliga have deemed it to be.

Wilfried Zaha – England

Wilfried Zaha showed with his late season performances for English Championship side Crystal Palace that he’s versatile as a winger or in the pocket behind a main striker.

Zaha scored six goals and provided ten assists for Crystal Palace last season meaning he is one of the names certain to be down on every team sheet for England and one of the few players in Stuart Pearce’s squad effective in terms of scoring and creating goals.

Isco – Spain

A 21-year-old attacking midfielder, Málaga’s Isco operates alongside Barcelona’s similarly vaunted Thiago Alcântara in a formidably talented Spain side.

Tipped by some to follow his old manager Manuel Pellegrini from Málaga to Manchester City, Isco is a product of Valencia’s youth system and has been watched by most of Europe’s leading clubs

Thiago – Spain

Partnering Isco in central midfield will be a man who has played more than 50 times for Barcelona and already been capped for the senior Spain side.

Thiago made his Barca club debut as an 18-year-old in 2009, although he has struggled to establish himself in the starting line-up this season.

He has been linked with a move to Manchester United but says he won’t think about his future until after the U-21 Euros.

Marco Verratti – Italy

One of the best passers of the ball in Israel will be Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Verratti.

The 20-year-old moved to the wealthy French side for around £10million last summer and helped them win Ligue 1 in his first season.

Dubbed ‘the next Andrea Pirlo’, expect to see Verratti running the show in England’s opening game with Italy on June 5.

Adam Maher – Holland

One of the flair players to watch at the championship will be Netherlands’ Adam Maher.

The prodigious 19-year-old attacking midfielder – who possesses excellent technique and an eye for goal – has already outgrown current club AZ and looks set to be a fixture for the senior national side going forward.

Daniel Carvajal – Italy

Measuring a tiny 5ft 4in, Insigne is not your typical striker but he looks to have a big future ahead of him.

With Ezequiel Lavezzi departing Napoli last summer and Edinson Cavani almost certain to exit in the coming months, 21-year-old Insigne certainly has some big boots to fill at his club.

His close control and dribbling skills have already marked him out and he was on the score sheet as Italy overcame Sweden in the U-21 Euro play-off to book their place at the finals.

Lorenzo Insigne – Italy

At only 5ft 4in the 22-year-old Napoli forward is well accustomed to being dubbed diminutive. A deep lying second striker and unerring finisher, he possesses stellar positional sense and his insidious movement and low centre of gravity makes life difficult for defenders.

Insigne revels in showing off his enviably adhesive control while dribbling at defenders.

Kevin Strootman – Holland

Kevin Strootman goes into the Dutch squad as one of the qualified players actually over the age of 21-years-old.

He’s the captain of PSV Eindhoven and a very important figure for the team in terms of leadership and organisation. He pulls the string and does the box-to-box work while the more creative players sit and form the attack.

He started every single match he played for PSV last season which shows his consistency and fitness. He will be integral to the success the Netherlands have in this tournament.

Havard Nordtveit – Norway

A defensive midfielder blessed with superb tacking technique, Nordtveit excels at breaking up opponents’ play.

Now 22 years old, the 6ft 2in enforcer spent three years at Arsenal without convincing Arsène Wenger he had a first team future but he is now a Bundesliga star at Borussia Mönchengladbach.

He is integral to Norway’s hopes of progression beyond the group stages

Cristian Tello – Spain

Cristian Tello scored seven goals for Barcelona last season in what can be considered his breakthrough year.

In terms of technique, there will be few strikers at the tournament better than Tello. He should thrive on the responsibility of leading the Spain attack and he will be full of confidence because of how difficult it is to break into the Barcelona first team.

Jordy Clasie – Holland

Feyenoord’s 21-year-old midfielder has been tipped as “the Dutch Xavi”. At only 5ft 7in he was initially dubbed “too small and weak” for top level football, but he shone last season when he was watched by, among others, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs.

Superb positioning and supreme creativity set Clasie apart. Be sure to look out for him in Israel.

Alan Dzagoev – Russia

A senior international – indeed he was joint top scorer at Euro 2012 – the 22-year-old CSKA Moscow attacking midfielder has been drafted into this tournament in an attempt to propel Russia to victory. A clever footballer, he is brilliant at operating between the lines. Dzagoev is also a fine finisher reputedly much admired at Tottenham

Patrick Herrmann – Germany

The Borussia Monchengladbach winger played with Dortmund star Marco Reus at his former club and has taken over his role as the main playmaker.

Reportedly wanted by Spurs, Herrmann has just signed a new deal to keep him at Monchengladbach but be prepared for his stock to rise after the U-21 tournament.

Luuk De Jong – Holland

Yet another person on this list to play for Borussia Monchengladbach, highly-rated striker De Jong moved to Germany for around £12million last summer but has struggled to secure his place in the starting XI.

With six league goals to his name, the one-time Newcastle target still has high hopes and says he wants to move to one of Europe’s bigger sides in the future.

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