England have a good record of reaching European Under-21 Championships, if not succeeding when they get there, but they will find it harder than ever to win what would be their first Under-21 title since 1984.
This has been a glorious summer for English football after their Under-20 World Cup win, but they have long found this tournament tougher to crack. Even their semi-final and final appearances under Stuart Pearce, 10 and eight years ago now, are receding away from view. And this month in Poland they will face the simple problem that they are up against far superior sides.
Portugal were the best team at the last tournament, in Czech Republic in 2015, but they blew the final and lost to Sweden on penalties. That team had William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva in it but in Portugal they believe that this team is even better than that one.
The big name is Renato Sanches, phenomenal at Euro 2016 last summer but coming off the back of a frustrating first season at Bayern Munich, where he struggled to make an impression. But beyond Renato there are three talents less well known in England but just as gifted. Daniel Podence and Francisco Geraldes are two dangerous attacking midfielders from Sporting CP and Joao Carvalho is a diminutive playmaker from Benfica. There is clearly plenty more talent where Silva came from.
Overseeing it all is Rui Jorge, the left-back from Portugal’s golden generation and the man rated to be the next big coach out of Portugal, even if he is a few years older than new Watford manager Marco Silva.
Then there is Spain, who like Portugal consider themselves the favourites. They won this competition in 2011 and 2013 and have arguably as much talent now as they did four years ago.
The two stars on the wings are Gerard Deulofeu, still on the books of Everton, and Marco Asensio, who exploded into the Real Madrid side this season on their way to yet another Champions League title. Controlling midfield they have Saul Niguez, an Atletico Madrid regular, surely one of the most experienced and canny players in the tournament. There are plenty of goals in Inaki Williams and Everton-bound Sandro Ramirez, and they have a well-known name at right-back in Hector Bellerin.
That is why Spain and Portugal are favourites, and if you are looking for a dark horse then Serbia still have plenty of the players who won the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand two years ago. They have Milos Veljkovic, once briefly of Tottenham Hotspur, and Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, who was on the books at Manchester United and is now set to replace Joe Hart at Torino next season.
England do not face any of these sides in their group and Group A, it must be said, is fairly gentle. They start against reigning champions Sweden in Kielce on Friday before playing Slovakia on Monday and hosts Poland next Thursday.
But the format of the tournament, three groups of four and then semi-finals, means that they have to win their group to be certain of progress. And when it gets serious, it is fair to ask whether England have enough quality to live with the Iberian giants. There is proven Premier League quality in Jordan Pickford, Nathaniel Chalobah, Rob Holding, Demarai Gray and Nathan Redmond, giving England a spine to cope with anyone.
But do they have enough intelligence? The best passing midfielder of his age group is Harry Winks but he is still recovering from ankle surgery, depriving England of his nous. The manager Aidy Boothroyd has proven he can get good results with meagre resources but it remains to be seen whether his rudimentary style of play is in keeping with what is meant to be the England identity espoused by Gareth Southgate.
Maybe it will prove to be the perfect approach for these players but it is hard to see how the winner of Spain v Portugal in Gdynia does not go on to lift the trophy in Krakow two weeks from tomorrow.Reuse content