Life begins at 21

Tonight sees the last four games of the first leg of the UEFA Under 21 Championship Qualifying play off, as Germany host Switzerland and England face Serbia while Czech Republic and France welcome Russia and Norway respectively.

The UEFA Under 21 Championship has long been billed as an “academy for tomorrow’s stars” and this year was no exception, with some real quality being displayed throughout the tournament.

The play off stage, though, is a completely different environment.  The ability of performing in two-legged tie with a spot at next year’s tournament at stake, separates the good players from the stars. Just like at senior level.

Two of tonight’s games are on TV (Germany-Switzerland on British Eurosport 2 at 5pm, England-Serbia at 6pm on ESPN) and here’s four players you should keep an eye on…

Alexander Esswein (Germany)

After failing to become a regular at Wolfsburg (he was part of the team that won the Bundesliga in 2008-09), the 22-year-old found himself playing in third division with Dynamo Dresden in 2010, before 17 goals in 31 league games earned him a ticket back to the Bundesliga, this time with Nurenberg.

Esswein can play either as left winger (his preferred position) or slightly deeper as an attacking midfielder and, like the majority of the last generation of German midfielders, loves having the ball at his feet.

Last season, his first back in the German top-flight, Esswein scored four goals and assisted three in 26 league games as Nuremberg finished tenth in the league, but he saved his best performances for the national team, scoring five goals and assisting three in eight games.

Steven Zuber (Switzerland)

As Manchester United found out last year, Switzerland have come leaps and boundaries in terms of developing young players and Steven Zuber has all the credentials to become the latest youngster to leave chocolate and Emmental cheese behind to seek fortune in bigger European leagues.

The Grasshoppers midfielder was Switzerland’s key-man throughout the tournament, scoring five in seven games (including a hat-trick against Georgia) and assisting two and has replicate his form at club level, netting three times and registering an assist in nine league games so far this season.

A ball-playing midfielder with an instinct for goal, Zuber is at times utilised as left winger  for both club and country but his preferred position remains in the middle of the park.

The young Swiss is valued £1.1m by his club but don’t be surprised if that price doubles or triples in a couple of months.

Wilfried Zaha (England)

The Ivory Coast-born striker was voted Championship Young Player of the Season last year and has started this campaign on fire, scoring four and assisting three in ten league games for Palace.

Despite featuring only two times for the Under 21 since making his debut in February 2012 against Belgium, Zaha proved that he can be a real asset on the international level and Stuart Pearce was delighted with his progress.

Zaha’s speed and quick feet make him a tough client for opponents’ and expect the 19-year-old to make establish himself as a regular in Stuart Pearce’s side and with City, Arsenal, Liverpool sniffing around a move to Premier League in the not too distant future beckons.

Slobodan Medojevic (Serbia)

When it comes to talented, ball-playing midfielders, Serbia’s contribution to the cause can never be faulted, as history shows.

Despite his tender age, Slobodan Medojevic has been tipped for a bright future and anybody who’s seen him playing for Serbia U21 can easily see why as the Wolfsburg midfielder has developed into a key figure for the national U21 side.

The 21-year-old is a no-nonsense midfielder, often deployed as defensive shield in front of the back four, who can occasionally do a job as centre-back thanks to a good sense of position and aerial ability, helped by his 183cm.

Medojevic moved to Wolfsburg in January 2012 and has yet to make an appearance for the German club, but the talent is there and it won’t be long before he establishes himself in the Bundesliga.

 

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