The U21 European Championship begins on Wednesday, June 17 and The Set Pieces’ new signing Phil Costa has previewed every team.
MANAGER: Rui Jorge
FIXTURES: England (June 18, 1945GMT), Italy (June 21, 1945GMT), Sweden (June 24, 1945GMT)
OUR VERDICT: Portugal head into the tournament as third favourites and will be desperate to make an impact. After a run of producing few young players with serious quality, this squad is filled with first team regulars who are experienced both domestically and in Europe. Expect them to make England and Italy sweat for progression out of the group stages.
Tobias Figueiredo: Figueiredo has been labelled the ‘future of Portugal’ by many, and if you watch him you can see why he is so highly thought of in his home country. The 21 year-old is a very strong defender, very combative in the air as well as having a grace to the technical side to his game. He is an excellent tackler, timing standing and sliding tackles very well throughout the game as well as being able to outmuscle many opponents with his raw physical strength. For all these positives, one negative hangs over the young defenders head and that is his lack of discipline. He is no stranger to a yellow card, and was even sent off twice in 17 games for Sporting last season which is something he will need to grow out of quickly.
Tobias Figueiredo has been at Sporting Lisbon since 2006 after moving from his local club Penalva aged 12. After progressing through the Sporting youth squads, Figueiredo was loaned to Spanish club CF Reus Deportiu in January 2014 until June, alongside his teammate Alexandre Guedes. After starting regularly and impressing on loan, he returned to the Lions in June 2014 and was promoted to the main squad in January of the following year.
The Portuguese international is at an age now where he either steps up to a really top level, or remains a player who wasn’t quite able to fulfil his obvious potential. There are qualities to his game that make him a terrific centre back, but also qualities that hinder him greatly and it’s all about him deciding which of those he wants to keep. With the Portuguese national side ageing and really struggling for centre backs, this tournament is an opportunity for him to show Fernando Santos as well as new Sporting manager Jorge Jesus that he is ready to make the step up and become a really impressive centre back.
Raphael Guerreiro: Born in France but opting to play for his father’s country of birth, 21 year old left-back Raphael Guerreiro has risen from the unknown in the last few seasons to become a highly-rated and sought after youngster. After achieving his dream to play for Portugal, the future is bright for the left sided player from Lorient.
Blessed with immense speed and a tireless work rate, Guerreiro is able to contribute at both ends of the pitch. The Portuguese international is eager to join in the attack at the every possible opportunity and has proven to be a terrific outlet for the men in orange. Naturally a left-back, his primary focus is defending, and he is a very smart defender at that. He excels at reading the game and making interceptions, as his style is very much focused on playing on the front foot. Additionally, his positional awareness highlights his maturity for his age. At the same time, tackling is probably the stand out weakness in his game. Because of this, the speedy defender has adopted a style that relies heavily on jockeying and reading the game rather than diving into challenges.
Bigger teams have taken an interest in the Portuguese left-back, but for now Guerreiro is still under the books of Lorient and has quickly become one of their most important players. Manager Christian Gourcuff has a lot of faith in the youngster, even pushing him onwards in a more attacking role to take advantage of his prodigious attacking talent, and Guerreiro has delivered, scoring 7 goals during the 2014/15 season. His performances have been noticed by the Seleção, and there is no doubt that he will give 100% for his country whatever the occasion.
Ruben Neves: The industrious teenager perfectly typifies the modern day defensive midfielder. He can play as both the lone anchorman and as the box-to-box midfielder, but it’s in the former that he was able to play his best football for the champions. It’s from that deeper position that his defensive work rate and positioning work best, but the youngster’s composure on the ball and vision give him that extra something to reach a higher level in his game. His range and accuracy of passing link perfectly with those other qualities, allowing Neves to quickly find the best options around him. If he is asked to play slightly higher up the pitch, his quality of passing is evident as he is able to make incisive and defence splitting through balls on a regular basis.
Born in Mozelos, Neves joined FC Porto’s youth system at the age of eight and has remained there ever since, barring a season long loan to Padroense in 2012. In July 2014, Neves was supposed to leapfrog the level of Porto’s under-19 team and play with the reserve side, but following the injury of teammate Mikel Agu he was called by Julen Lopetegui to be part of the main squad’s pre-season. After impressing, it was decided that the 18 year-old would remain with the first team squad for the whole season.
Neves only made seven appearances for Porto during the 2014/15 season, but it was still a record breaking season for him. He became the youngest player in Porto’s history to score a goal in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, as well being the youngest Portuguese player to ever feature in the Champions League. It is clear to see he is highly rated by Lopetegui and those at Porto, and this tournament will give him a canvas to show that he has the credentials to play at the top level.
Bernardo Silva: Bernardo Silva is everything you want in an attacking midfielder. Possessing incredible close control and an assured first touch, you can always rely on him creating something dangerous in the final third. He is a fantastic dribbler, always looking to take defenders on as well as having an extremely effective left foot. His 5ft 8in height allows him to weave in and out of challenges with consummate ease and he really is a joy to watch when full of confidence, bringing out all of the flicks and tricks.
Bernardo Silva started his career in the academy of Benfica in 2002, progressing through every youth level before being promoted to the first team in 2013. After spending one season in the senior squad, he was loaned to Monaco in August 2014 to try and gain some valuable first team experience. It did not take Silva very long to impress his new employers. He scored in his first training session with the French club and also managed to catch the attention of AS Monaco midfielder and Portuguese international João Moutinho, which is always a good sign.
With 10 goals and 4 assists to his name during the 2014/15 season, he was one of the main forces behind Monaco’s impressive campaign and it’s no surprise that Les Rouges et Blancs bought him outright from Benfica in January for €15.75m. His energetic style suits Monaco’s counter attacking game to a tee, and he will only improve with the first team football he regularly receives. He will be one of the most exciting players to watch throughout the tournament, full of confidence and ready to build on a fantastic season at Monaco.
You can follow Phil Costa on Twitter (@Costafc_)