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First of a four part feature as we look at the top young players who will grace the eight stadiums in Poland and Ukraine this summer, some will make the final grade for their countries this year but some may not even make the final squads, going to show the growing competition for places in 23-man squads is ever increasing. First up, Group A, consisting of hosts Poland, 2004 winners Greece, Russia and Czech Republic.
Wojciech Szczesny (Arsenal & Poland)
Ok, so most of you know who Szczesny is, he’s become Arsenal’s No.1 over the past 18 months, and has become one of the top goalkeepers in the Premier League. Considering his age, it’s clear to see that Szczesny will be a star for the long-term future, but he’s included in our feature because it will be his first appearance at a major international tournament.
His shot-stopping abilities have kept Arsenal in many games and have saved them many points over the course of the season, and his relaxed personality has even endeared him to fans of other clubs.
Poland face an uphill task to qualify from their group, but not an impossible one. The Czech’s have fallen from grace over time, Russia are unpredictable and Greece do not have much to offer if the World Cup is anything to go by. But if Poland are to qualify from Group A, Szczesny will have a big hand (or two) in whether they do or they don’t.
Robert Lewandowski (Borussia Dortmund & Poland)
At the other end of the pitch, there is a rapidly developing striker who could cause a stir in Europe this summer. Despite being 23, Lewandowski has been around for a few years now and first came to knowledge of the top European teams when at Lech Poznan, scoring 32 goals in 58 games, which was enough for Borussia Dortmund to snap the Pole up in 2010. Since then he’s become a proven goalscorer in the Bundesliga, with 27 goals in just over 60 appearances for Dortmund.
On the international scene, Lewandowski has also impressed, making his Poland debut at just 19 and scoring 13 goals for his country. It is almost certain Lewandowski will lead the line for Poland this summer, and if Szczesny can do the business at one end, Robert could be the man to lead Poland into the knockouts.
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Schalke 04 & Greece)
It is depressing to think Papadopoulos is younger than me, yet almost certain to play at the European Championships this summer. The defender has impressed many around Europe in the last few years, and whilst at Schalke the 6 foot centre-back has been linked with plenty of top clubs around the continent. He’d only made 12 appearances for Olympiakos when the German side took him on, but Papadopoulos has put in several classy performances for Schalke recently and made his international debut last year.
Despite just seven international caps, Papadopoulos is one of the highest rated defenders in Europe and I’m almost certain he’ll travel to Poland/Ukraine this summer, perhaps his performances will finally guarantee him that move to a bigger club.
Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow & Russia)
Alan Dzagoev is only 21, yet it seems like we’ve heard his name thrown around as a top talent for years. He’s already made over 100 appearances for CSKA Moscow, and wasn’t even 18 when named the best young player of the year in Russia’s top league in 2008. The creative midfielder has been linked with Man United, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Barcelona and almost every other top club in Europe, but he has remained loyal to Moscow for now.
With 18 caps and four goals for Russia, Dzagoev is improving all the time and will no doubt be the cog in Russia’s midfield this summer, with plenty of creativity around him, it could be another successful Euro’s for the Russian side in 2012.
Tomas Necid (CSKA Moscow & Czech Republic)
They must be breeding them well in Moscow, as our final player to watch from Group A also plays for CSKA. Tomas Necid may not be as well known as Dzagoev, but his impact in Russia is just as well-known. The 22-year old started at Slavia Prague and impressed enough for CSKA to buy him in 2009. He has not been prolific in Russia, but 19 goals in 68 games is steady progress for someone who isn’t guaranteed a regular starting place.
He’s got seven in 25 for Czech Republic but has yet to participate in a major tournament, but with Czech Republic struggling for prolific strikers, it would not surprise us to see Necid heavily involved this summer and could be the man to fire his nation to better things in 2012.