Every two years, some of Europe’s brightest prospects get the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of a watching continent, at the Under-21 European Championship. This year’s edition will see some of the World’s best young talent arrive in Italy – all attempting to lift the trophy that is – for the next two weeks at least, in Germany’s possession. The likes of Luka Jović, Moise Kean, Dani Ceballos and Houssem Aouar are set to light up the tournament this year. But alongside the star names, are some German based players who could emerge as surprise packages, leaving the competition with their reputations greatly enhanced.
Here then, is a list of just some of the Bundesliga talent heading out to Italy – although it’s not the names you might expect. Instead, are 10 players who could use the Euro’s as a chance to establish themselves as stars in their own right – just as Thiago, Max Arnold and Mesut Özil managed to do in Under-21 Championships gone by.
After a breakout 2017/18 season on loan at Fortuna Düsseldorf – where he helped the side achieve promotion, Neuhaus has since established himself as one of the most exciting young midfielders in the Bundesliga.
He consolidated a successful spell in Düsseldorf by returning to parent club – Borussia Mönchengladbach, where he has steadily improved and integrated into the first team.
He ended last season as a regular in Gladbach’s starting XI, featuring 34 times in all competitions, registering a superb 10 assists in an eye-catching campaign.
Neuhaus has also been a regular in the Germany Under 21 squad since late 2017, gaining a good degree of experience at this level. A starting spot in Germany’s stacked midfield is not guaranteed however, with already established playmakers Nadiem Amiri and Mahmoud Dahoud also amongst the Germany contingent in Italy.
That being said, Neuhaus’ versatility and matured level of performance, means that he is more than capable of leading the side to a second consecutive Under-21 title, much in the same way Max Arnold did in 2017.
As Germany’s youngest player at this summer’s Championship, Maier is not quite as well known to the general populous as some of his teammates. Despite this, he could prove to be an exciting watch in Italy if he gets an opportunity to shine.
The Hertha BSC midfielder has enjoyed a fruitful spell In Germany’s capital, with 24 appearances in the Bundesliga this season. He has proven to be assured in possession, pulling strings from deep, and is now gaining invaluable experience via regular Bundesliga minutes. Maier is relatively new to Under-21 football, with just 5 caps so far, but 4 goals in 16 U17 games for Germany shows that he has been a key member of the national side’s youth set-up for many years.
Maier is not expected to start (barring injury), but should he be called upon, expect the Hertha academy product to be a calming and composed influence in the German midfield. This summer’s competition may ultimately come too soon for the youngster, but to be in the squad – at the age of just 20, is already a sign of Maier’s obvious quality and immense potential.
Meré has been a regular in the Spanish Under-21 defence for the past few years, first making an appearance for the side back in 2015. He’s now somewhat of veteran at this level, having now played 28 times for the four-time champions.
The 22-year-old is expected to lead the backline for Spain this summer, after ending a successful season in 2. Bundesliga for eventual champions FC Köln – where he played in 26 of 34 games. Meré will hope to lead his nation to another Under-21 victory, ahead of what will be a fascinating return season back in the Bundesliga.
Much has been expected of Brekalo from a very early age. He first caught the eye of scouts and FM fanatics in the 2015/16 edition of the UEFA Youth League, scoring 3 times in 5 games for his boyhood club – Dinamo Zagreb.
Performances such as those earned him a place in Croatia’s various youth sides, where he would score 9 goals in a staggering 25 appearances for the U17 side. He steadily progressed from there, earning a move to Wolfsburg in 2016. A Loan spell at Stuttgart saw him score his first senior league goal, but it was last season – back at parent club Wolfsburg, where the Croatian winger has really excelled.
He would feature 25 times In the Bundesliga, scoring and assisting on three occasions. It is by far the most football Brekalo has played in a senior season, with has in turn benefitted his international career – with the 20-year-old earning 6 caps for the Croatian national side, all coming since 2018. His form for the countries Under-21s should also not be forgotten, with 7 goals in 13 appearances highlighting just how deadly Brekalo is capable of being from wide.
While not technically a Bundesliga player until the 1st July, Hannes Wolf has already shown he is more than worthy of making this shortlist, with some wonderful displays for RB Salzburg in Austria last season. His move to from RB Salzburg to RB Leipzig, previously undertaken by the likes of Naby Keita, Konrad Leimer and Marcel Sabitzer – could prove to be one of the finest pieces of transfer business by any German club this summer. However, before that move can take place, Wolf has an opportunity to light up the Under-21 Euro’s for a vastly underrated Austrian side.
Wolf will function as the creative hub – most likely in an attacking midfield role, where he is as adept at scoring goals as he is at laying them on a plate for teammates. With 8 goals and 7 assists for RB Salzburg last season, much is expected of Austria’s talisman, who also played – and scored in last season’s Europa League. Experience at this level should also stand Wolf in good stead this summer, as he has been capped 9 times for Austria’s Under-21 side – scoring on three occasions.
If Austria are to do well in Italy, they will need Wolf to be at his very best, with goals and assists most likely to come from the 20-year-old playmaker.
The second Austrian to be featured on this list, Danso is another example of a talented player leaving English football at a young age, only to thrive Germany. Despite growing up in England, Danso has represented Austria since the age of 14, as he was born in Voitsberg. Committing to the country of his birth has opened doors for the 20-year-old, who already has 6 senior Austrian caps to his name.
Danso is a versatile player, as comfortable at centre-back as he is in the heart of midfield. He moved from MK Dons to Augsburg in 2014 as a 15-year-old, breaking into the first team on a regular basis only last season, where he made 18 appearances for the Bundesliga side. Danso is expected to be utilised in midfield this summer for Austria, despite mainly deputising as a centre-back at club level.
However, with Austria’s centre-back partnership of Maximillian Wober and Phillip Leinhart now fully established, a role further forward is more likely for Austria’s number 8, where he will dutifully shield the backline as a defensive midfielder.
Far from mourning the loss of Luka Jovic last week, Eintracht Frankfurt were instead quietly lining up a move for his Serbian heir – that of Dejan Joveljić. The 19-year-old will line up next to his Real Madrid bound countryman at this summer’s Euro’s, in what will be a shining endorsement of Red Star Belgrade’s commitment to youth – with both forwards products of their famous academy.
Joveljić has enjoyed a breakthrough season at Red Star, scoring 8 goals in 17 Serbian Superliga appearances – as well as featuring as a sub in the clubs recent run to the Champions League group stages. Following Luka Jovic’s high profile move to Real, Eintracht were quick to recruit Joveljić for just €3 million – continuing the sides tradition of signing highly rated Balkan youngsters for a relative pittance.
Joveljić will – unfairly so, be expected to replace Jovic next season, but at country level, both are set to feature in a Serbian side that could cause one or two upsets. Jovic will of course spearhead the Serbian attack, but don’t dismiss his younger understudy as merely making up the numbers. At youth level, he showed a prolific desire to score, with 9 goals for the Serbian U17 side. A goal or two in Italy this summer will surely get Eintracht fans feeling a little bit better about life post-Luka Jovic.
Jean-Phillipe Mateta may come into the Euro’s as an understudy to Moussa Dembele – but after a stellar first season in German football, he could well be France’s ace card should he be called upon. Mateta signed for Mainz last summer, in a €10m move from Lyon. Mainz have a recent history of recruiting young French talent, with the likes of Abdou Diallo playing for the club before moving on to Dortmund for a massive profit.
There was no bedding in period for Mateta, who set the Bundesliga alight with 14 goals in 34 appearances – not a bad return for a debut campaign. He therefore jets off to the Euro’s in the form of his career, hopeful that he can force his way into the side – with Lyon’s Dembele likely to start as France’s first choice striker.
In the absence of French captain and Borussia Dortmund’s own Abdou Diallo, Niakhaté could prove to be the perfect partner for Dayot Upamecano at centre-back. The colossal RB Leipzig man seemed too obvious a pick, given his status as a Bundesliga regular since the age of 18.
Niakhaté however, has flown under the radar somewhat, after a fine season at Mainz. Keeping with club tradition of late, Niakhaté is yet another example of Mainz’s superb scouting network, as – like Mateta, he was signed last summer from French football for a relatively small fee. Arriving from FC Metz to theoretically replace Dortmund bound Diallo, the 23-year-old stepped up, playing in all but one Bundesliga matches last season.
A fine run of form in Germany led to regular appearances for the French Under-21 side, where he has earned 9 caps in the space of a year. Such was Niakhaté’s form, that he leapfrogged highly rated RB Leipzig centre-half Ibrahim Konate, who has, incredibly, yet to make an appearance for the French Under-21s. The fact that Niakhaté could potentially start for the tournament favourites, is a clear example of how highly rated he remains in within the French camp.
Kownacki finished as top-scorer in Euro qualification for the finals, so much is expected of the Polish marksman who netted 11 times on the road to Italy. This is also a controversial pick in terms of “German based players”, as, until July first, Kownacki is technically a Sampdoria player.
However, after a successful six-month loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf, Kownacki could yet move to North-Rhine Westphalia on a permanent basis – with Fortuna currently having an option to sign him this summer. Either way, it doesn’t change matters in Italy, where Kownacki’s eye for goal will surely be needed to help carry Poland top a tough looking group A – containing Spain and Italy.
Four goals in 10 Bundesliga games is a decent return, but his record for Poland under 21s – 15 goals in 20 caps, demonstrates his almost Lewandowski-like sharpness at youth level. A good showing this summer – in a tough group, could provide Fortuna with some stiff competition for the 22-year olds signature after the conclusion of the tournament.
By Tom Fenton.