European Under-21 tournament preview – Azzurrini ambitious in Sweden

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As Italy’s senior squad do battle in South Africa at the Confederations Cup, the youngsters are also carrying the nations hopes across in Sweden with the UEFA European Under-21 Championships gets under way this week. Pierluigi Casiraghi’s men kick off their campaign today against Serbia and will be hopeful of at least a semi-final finish.

The Under-21 Championship has been running since 1972 (then Under-23) and has been in the current Under-21 format from 1978 onwards. The Championship runs every two years and players can play for the whole period (qualification and tournament) as long as they are 21 or under at the time when the first squads are announced. Past winners have most notably included England (two times), Spain (two), Holland (two) and Italy (four). Interestingly, the last tournament in 2007 was the first year as an odd number as the competition moved away from the senior level European Championships in order to prevent players from being called up to the full squad and missing the U-21 Championships despite helping their team qualify.

Sweden is hosting the tournament this year with all of the games taking place on the south-west side of the country in Gothenburg, Halmstad, Helsingborg and Malmo. The final will be played at Malmo New Stadium. Built especially for the tournament, the stadium is the new home of Swedish giants Malmo FF and has a capacity of 21 000. Italy will play all of their group games in Helsingborg in Olympia, one of the oldest stadiums in Sweden. The stadium will also host Italy’s semi-final should the Azzurrini finish top of Group A and Pierluigi Casiraghi will certainly need to make Olympia an adopted home should Italy wish to progress all the way to the final.

The tournament is divided in to two groups – A and B – and the competition is already mapped out. The winner of Group B will face the runner-up of A in the first semi-final while Group A’s winners will host the second placed Group B team. The first semi-final winner will officially be the home team for the final which will be played on Monday June 29. Group A contains Sweden, Belarus, Serbia and Italy. Group B is regarded as slightly tougher with England, Spain, Germany and Finland who will all fancy their chances to progress to the semi-finals.

Spain have been made favourites for the competition but face stiff competition from England and Germany in their group and it would not be too much of a shock if they were to exit at the group stage. Italy, as third favourites to win the competition, will look to finish top of their group but inevitably face a daunting semi-final. Although Sweden, Belarus and Finland are considered to be the make-weights in the competition, Serbia is a dark horse and has finished runner-up on two of the last three occasions. They will look to progress to the semis comfortably and will not give Italy an easy ride in the group stage. As the opening game of Group A, Italy vs. Serbia may well decide the group winners.

Italy’s Under-21s suffered a major setback after the Olympic Games when Gianfranco Zola agreed to take charge at West Ham United. That left Casiraghi alone at the head of Azzurrini, ending a two-year partnership at the helm. However, after an impressive qualifying campaign in which Italy remained unbeaten, they now look to the tournament with a group of youngsters bound together by strong team spirit. Here is the complete squad list for the tournament:

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Goalkeepers

Andrea Consigli

Salvatore Sirigu

Andrea Seculin

Defenders

Marco Motta

Marco Andreolli

Domenico Criscito

Lino Marzoratti

Andrea Ranocchia

Francesco Pisano

Salvatore Bocchetti

Midfielders

Piermario Morosini

Ignazio Abate

Claudio Marchisio

Paolo De Ceglie

Antonio Candreva

Andrea Poli

Luca Cigarini

Daniele Dessena

Forwards

Robert Acquafresca

Sebastian Giovinco

Alessio Cerci

Alberto Paloschi

Mario Balotelli

Italy has the most impressive forward line of the whole competition. With Acquafresca, Giovinco and Balotelli, the emphasis for Azzurrini will be on looking to create as many chances as possible up-front. Acquafresca was Italy’s top scorer in qualifying with five goals and is second-favourite to win top goalscorer behind Spaniard Bojan Krkic. Balotelli is just behind them in the odds and will look to build on his brace against Israel which assured qualification for the team. Italy will also look to get De Ceglie and Motta involved as much as possible in order to dominate possession and create opportunities from out wide. Casiraghi’s squad is strong all round and fans and critics alike are eagerly waiting to see just how he fits his wealth of talent into a team.

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The Azzurrini’s chances will ultimately be decided in the semi-finals. They need a strong performance in the group stage in order to prepare for the challenge. Qualifying was not the most difficult with Croatia and Greece the only tough opponents and no recorded losses against either. This may go against them and Casiraghi will have to shake his squad into action quickly. If they fail to beat Serbia, it is important to focus on the next two games and ensure progression – not qualifying from the group they are in would be a disappointment for the squad. After the group stage there is the prospect of a semi-final with Germany, Spain or England. It will be essential to keep the ball against these teams as they will look to expose Italy’s attacking full-backs. If Casiraghi can create a defensive rock, essentially needing a holding midfielder, there is no reason why the plethora of ability up-front cannot win any match. If Italy can make it through, then the semi, and hopefully the final, will be great encounters. The talent displayed will certainly make the grade for the Euros in three years time and, like all of the UEFA Under-21Championships before it, will announce the arrival of some of the hottest prospects in world football. Who said the football season was over?

Italy at the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship

Group A

Sweden 5-1 Belarus – June 16, 2009 – Malmo

Italy 0-0 Serbia – June 16, 2009 – Helsingborg

Sweden vs. Italy – June 19, 2009 – Helsingborg

Belarus vs. Serbia – June 19, 2009 – Malmo

Serbia vs. Sweden – June 23, 2009 – Malmo

Belarus vs. Italy – June 23, 2009 – Helsingborg

Group B

England 2-1 Finland – June 15, 2009 -Halmstad

Spain 0-0 Germany – June 15, 2009 – Gothenburg

Germany vs. Finland – June 18, 2009 -Halmstad

Spain vs. England – June 18, 2009 – Gothenburg

Finland vs. Spain – June 22, 2009 – Gothenburg

Germany vs. England – June 22, 2009 – Halmstad

Semi-finals

Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up – June 26, 2009 – Helsingborg

Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up – June 26, 2009 -Gothenburg

Final

Semi-final 1 winner vs. Semi-final 2 winner – June 29, 2009 – Malmo

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