Spain are favourites to take Under-21 title...but don't rule out England

With Germany, Italy and Holland failing to qualify, Stuart Pearce's youngsters have reason to hope
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The Independent Football

Who's playing?

Two groups of four, with the top two from each qualifying for the semi-finals on Wednesday week. In Group A are the hosts Denmark, plus their opponents tonight Switzerland, as well as Belarus and Iceland. In Group B, which looks the tougher of the two, England play Spain tomorrow night (7.45pm) after the Czech Republic meet Ukraine.

Click here to upload graphic: Danger In Denmark: Details And Four For England To Fear (232.57kb)

What about Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands and the like?

All eliminated, which means none of the winners of the last four tournaments will be taking part. It emphasises how the quick turnover of players can change a country's fortunes from one competition to the next. In 2009 Germany were the outstanding team, beating a weakened England 4-0 in the final and immediately promoting half-a-dozen players to the senior squad which reached the World Cup semi-final 12 months later. This time, however, they won only three group matches out of eight, finishing a full 10 points behind the Czech Republic and four adrift of Iceland. Italy, winners four times in six tournaments between 1992 and 2004, went out to Belarus in a play-off, and the Netherlands – winners at home in 2007 – were also narrowly beaten, on away goals by Ukraine. France had finished third in their group, one point behind the winners.

Who are the favourites?

Spain, by common consent, though that may be based in part on their seniors' reputation as holders of the World Cup and European Championship. Two years ago, England beat them comfortably 2-0. The Czech Republic have to be fancied after achieving the best record in qualifying (seven wins and one draw from eight games). But England are actually ranked No 1 in Europe at this level by virtue of their previous record: they are the only country to have qualified for the last three events.

Any dangerous outsiders?

Belarus, along with Spain and England, have qualified for the second time running. Iceland scored a stunning 4-1 win over Germany in qualifying and looked impressive in coming from behind to beat England 2-1 at Preston in March. They had knocked out Scotland in the play-off, the importance of that tie being emphasised when seven players were released from the senior team to take part in it. Iceland put their recent improvement at all levels down to investment in indoor facilities and artificial pitches after many years of struggling to practise properly in the harsh winter months.

It all sounds quite close then?

With only eight teams qualifying, it generally is, especially if the host country are strong. Denmark may be one of the weaker ones from recent years, having been beaten 4-0 at home by England only three months ago, but it is impossible to predict the four semi-finalists.

What's the history of the tournament?

It began in 1967 as an Under-23 competition, which was changed after 1976 to Under-21s. The present format was adopted in 1998, and in 2006 it moved to odd-numbered years to avoid clashing with a World Cup or senior European Championship. England and Wales both lost out in a bid to stage the 2013 finals, which will be in Israel.

Didn't England win it once?

Twice, in quick succession, although in those days even the final was played over home-and-away legs. In 1982, Dave Sexton's team beat West Germany in the final and the title was successfully defended two years later, beating Spain. On each occasion, only two players went on to win many senior caps: Sammy Lee and Terry Fenwick, then Mark Hateley (who was named player of the tournament) and Steve Hodge.

What's is England's recent history?

The two previous tournaments have been highly eventful. In the Netherlands four years ago, there was a wild game against Serbia, with racial abuse from the latter's supporters and defeat in an epic penalty shoot-out by the hosts, 13-12 in the semi-final. Two years ago, England beat Finland and Spain, then held Germany at the group stage, before winning a semi-final against Sweden on penalties after squandering a 3-0 lead. In the final against Germany, they had three players suspended – the only two fit strikers plus the one Premier League goalkeeper, Joe Hart – and were well beaten.

Stuart Pearce must know the ropes by now?

After taking over on a part-time basis from Peter Taylor early in 2007, this will be his third campaign in charge and on his own admission he has learnt a lot along the way. A big believer in the importance of gaining experience from tournament football, he has fought numerous battles over the years to field the strongest possible squad, winning some (Theo Walcott two years ago) and losing some (David Bentley in 2007, Jack Wilshere this time). Using the squad sensibly and practising penalties after every training session paid off in 2009; but he must instil greater discipline after the costly suspensions last time. With the Football Association's backing, there has been much greater emphasis on preparation and analysis of the opposition, just as at senior level.

How optimistic is he?

Cautiously. He has admitted he does not know exactly how good this team can be, and is looking forward to finding out. After a semi-final and then a losing final it is clear what the aim is, though as usual England are without several players: Arsenal's Wilshere, the outstanding player in this age group, plus Kieran Gibbs and Walcott (who is still eligible), and the experienced Micah Richards and Lee Cattermole. "There's some real talent that won't be here," Pearce says, "but we feel as though we have enough here to win the tournament".

Who are England's key players?

Daniel Sturridge had a fine second half of the season on loan from Chelsea to Bolton (eight goals in 12 games) and wants to enhance his credentials with club and country. Sturridge and Danny Welbeck will be relied upon for goals while Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones will be under the spotlight after their expensive moves this week and have important roles in midfield and defence. In goal, Frankie Fielding, who recently moved from Blackburn to Derby, needs to live up to Hart's displays, without the suspension.