Pirlo in, Xavi out: The greatest European Under-21 Championship XI of all time

Comments()
Getty/Goal
Ahead of the start of the Euros on Sunday, Goal picks the tournament's best ever XI - based on impact, success and playing position at the time

  1. Getty

    Petr Cech

    Francesc Arnau did not concede a single goal from the quarter-finals on during Spain's triumph in 1998, while Manuel Neuer was beaten just once when Germany lifted the trophy for the first time in 2009.

    However, our chosen No.1 is Petr Cech, who was awarded the Golden Player award in 2002, after inspiring Czech Republic to a shock win, with the former Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper even saving two penalties in the shootout success against France in the final.

    "They had a great goalkeeper, great not only in size but also in the way he played, and that made the difference," losing coach Raymond Domenech lamented afterwards.

  2. Getty

    Christian Panucci

    Christian Panucci had already broken into the AC Milan first team when he helped Italy retain the European Under-21 Championship crown in 1994, even popping up with a goal in the quarter-final first-leg win over Czech Republic, as well as converting the opening penalty in the shootout victory over France in the last four.

    The versatile right-back then returned two years later, as the Azzurrini made it three titles in a row by edging out Spain on spot-kicks in the final.

    Panucci missed his penalty this time around but he had once again played a pivotal role in his country's success with his defensive excellence and attacking endeavour.

  3. Getty

    Manuel Sanchis

    A member of a famed group of Real Madrid youth academy products nicknamed 'Quinta del Buitre', Manuel Sanchis underlined his enormous potential with his commanding performances at Under-21 level for Spain.

    With the composed and classy sweeper marshalling their defence, La Rojita qualified for the 1986 European Championship knockout stage without conceding a goal.

    The Iberians' swashbuckling style meant they failed to keep a clean sheet from the quarters on, but Sanchis, with his clever positioning and perceptive reading of the game, was imperious at the back and was named the tournament's Golden Player after Spain defeated Italy on penalties in the final.

  4. Getty

    Fabio Cannavaro

    One of the finest defenders of all time and unquestionably the greatest to ever grace the European Under-21 Championship.

    Fabio Cannavaro may have been small in size but he was a centre-half of immense stature, as he underlined by helping Italy win the title in 1994 by nullifying a Portugal team containing Luis Figo and Rui Costa in the final.

    The 2006 World Cup winner was even more dominant two years later, when the Azzurrini retained their title by edging out a Raul-spearheaded Spain side on penalties.

  5. Getty

    Alberto Moreno

    Alberto Moreno had only been promoted to the Sevilla first-team squad a few months previously when he travelled with Spain to Israel for the 2013 European Under-21 Championship.

    However, he proved himself one of the most exciting young attacking full-backs in the world with his rampaging runs down the left flank for Julen Lopetegui's outrageously talented side, who defeated Italy 4-2 in the final.

    Indeed, Moreno was included in the Team of the Tournament after playing a pivotal role in Spain's successful defence of their European crown.

  6. Getty

    Thiago Alcantara

    When Pep Guardiola took over at Bayern Munich in 2013, he told his new employers that his one and only transfer target was Thiago Alcantara.

    Those who had watched the Barcelona ace in action at that summer's European Under-21 Championship could see why, with the midfielder having won the Golden Player award after scoring a hat-trick in Spain's win over Italy in the final in Israel.

    What's more, this was Thiago's second successive triumph. He had also scored in the 2011 tournament decider, against hosts Switzerland, when he was still only 20.

  7. Getty

    Andrea Pirlo

    Some wonderful central midfielders have lit up the Under-21 Euro: Daniele De Rossi, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Frank Lampard and Xavi, to name but a few.

    However, none shone as brightly as the effortlessly cool Andrea Pirlo, who led Italy to victory in 2000.

    As captain, Pirlo lifted the trophy, but his two goals in the Azzurrini's final win over Czech Republic also saw the elegant No.10 take the Golden Boot as well as the Golden Player award.

    He returned in Switzerland two years later but even Pirlo, one of the game's great artists, was unable to top his 2000 exhibition of pin-point passing, with Italy falling at the semi-finals.

  8. Getty

    Sami Khedira

    Germany had neither the top scorer nor the Golden Player at the 2009 European Under-21 Championship in Sweden.

    What they did have, though, was a fantastically well-organised and hard-working side led by an excellent captain in the shape of Sami Khedira.

    The then Stuttgart star proved an indefatigable presence in the German midfield, helping to provide protection for a defence that was breached just once in the tournament, and possession for an offence that only truly caught fire in the final, when Horst Hrubesch's side put four unanswered goals past England.

  9. Getty

    Luis Figo

    Having emerged as the leader of Portugal's 'Golden Generation' during the country's triumphant World Youth Championship in 1991, Luis Figo was quickly capped at senior level by the Selecao.

    Nonetheless, the Portuguese called upon the gifted winger for the 1994 European Under-21 Championship and the then Sporting ace justified his reputation as a coming superstar with a string of scintillating displays.

    Figo failed to score once, and he ended up on the losing side in an epic final showdown with a powerful Italy side, but still walked away with the Golden Player award after proving himself the outstanding talent in a team that also contained Joao Pinto and Rui Costa.

  10. Getty

    Davor Suker

    In 1990, the former Yugoslavia boasted one of the finest crop of young players the game has ever seen.

    Alen Boksic, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Jarni, Robert Prosinecki and Sinisa Mihajlovic all featured during their European Under-21 campaign. Davor Suker, though, was the pick of a brilliant bunch.

    The deadly striker scored four times in the knockout stages alone and although the Yugoslavs were beaten by USSR in the final, he still walked away with the Golden Player prize.

  11. Getty

    Juan Mata

    A year after playing a small part in Spain's 2010 World Cup triumph in South Africa, Juan Mata was included in his nation's European Under-21 Championship squad.

    Unsurprisingly, the then Valencia forward flourished in Denmark, bamboozling opponents with his quick feet and clever movement, as he repeatedly drifted off the left flank and into danger areas.

    Mata proved a constant menace, bagging a couple of goals and a pair of assists in a Golden Player-award winning campaign that propelled Spain to victory.

  12. Goal

    Euro Under-21s Dream Team

    So, there you have it, our European Under-21 Championship Dream Team. There were plenty of close calls, so what do you make of our selections?

    Let us know your thoughts and post your own all-star line-ups in the comment box.