England's best hopes for a trophy in 2021 might just be their Under-21 squad.

Aidy Boothroyd's youngsters head into the group stage of the Euro Under-21 finals as legitimate contenders for the trophy, despite being placed in a seriously tough group with Croatia, Portugal and Switzerland.

History is against England, too. They have reached the finals for eight consecutive tournaments but have only progressed from the group stages three times in that sequence. Since winning the trophy in 1984, they have reached the final only once, in 2009, where they lost to Germany.

Still, Boothroyd is undoubtedly blessed with a rich pool of talent, despite leaving out stars such as Phil Foden, Reece James and Jude Bellingham, who will all be involved in the senior side's World Cup qualifiers this month. There is a strength in depth to the Young Lions that should give them real hope of going all the way.

Perhaps the current crop can also buck the trend when it comes to breaking into the senior fold. Only 17 of the 48 players from the previous two Euro Under-21 squads have gone on to play for the full England side, and only Jordan Pickford could consider himself a regular there.

In short, this undoubtedly talented group has plenty to play for…

 

Max-imum opportunity

In front of keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who was in goal for all but one of their qualifiers, sits an encouraging defence.

Norwich City full-back Max Aarons has not only kept 15 clean sheets with the Championship leaders, but his attacking threat has been marked this season. Aarons has created 51 chances from open play and completed 52 dribbles, both the second-best figures among defenders in the competition. At the same time, Aarons has only been beaten by an opponent's dribble 13 times, the lowest number among the top nine of that particular group of attack-minded defenders. Little wonder he is a reported target for Bayern Munich and Everton, among others.

Japhet Tanganga of Tottenham is untested at this level but Jose Mourinho's young protege will not have far to look for a (relatively) experienced guide. Spurs' Ryan Sessegnon, one of just two England players who also played at the 2019 finals, has enjoyed an impressive loan spell at Hoffenheim this season, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (1.7) than anyone else for the Bundesliga side. He has also contributed two goals and two assists – only five Bundesliga defenders have had more direct goal involvements.

There's Rowe stopping him

Arguably England's most in-form young midfielder outside the senior squad has amazingly never played before for the Under-21s.

Emile Smith Rowe has been the big success story of Mikel Arteta's time in charge of Arsenal. Since the start of last season, as well as scoring twice and registering six assists, he has created 1.5 chances from open play per 90 minutes in all competitions, the best number among Gunners midfielders to start at least 10 matches in that time.

 

In 2020-21, Smith Rowe (nine) is second only to Mason Mount (14) for players 23 and under in the Premier League when it comes to multi-chance involvements – the number of unique shot-ending sequences in open play where a player both creates the chance and is involved in the build-up.

Exactly how Boothroyd deploys Smith Rowe remains to be seen, but he could offer a potent combination with rising Liverpool star Curtis Jones, a major plus in an otherwise troubled Premier League title defence for Jurgen Klopp.

Jones, the youngest Liverpool player to score in the Premier League away from Anfield in seven years, averages the most successful final-third passes (22.5) this season of any Reds player to feature in at least half of their league games.

Among Premier League midfielders in this age group this season, only Mount (nine) has been involved in more sequences that ended in them taking a shot at goal than Jones (seven) – and the Liverpool man has played fewer than half the minutes of the Chelsea star.

On the wings, Callum Hudson-Odoi might have experience of playing for England at the highest level, but a strong performance at these championships could be just what he needs as he begins to build up the trust of Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel. Since the German took charge on January 26, no Blues player has played more games (13) than Hudson-Odoi and only two have created more chances per 90 minutes (1.71). His directness down the wing could be a major asset: among players 23 or under in the Premier League, only Ferran Torres (0.59) has a better rating than Hudson-Odoi (0.55) when it comes to Expected Assists from a take-on.

Madueke's chance to shine

With Mason Greenwood having withdrawn due to injury, much of the goalscoring burden may fall on the Under-21s' all-time top marksman, Eddie Nketiah.

 

Arsenal's young striker has one goal in three league starts this season and three in six in the Europa League, but the international stage is where he really shines: 13 goals in nine qualifying games helped him become the Young Lions' record goalscorer, surpassing Alan Shearer.

If Nketiah should struggle for form, Boothroyd can turn to Noni Madueke. An unknown at this level on the international scene, Ruud van Nistelrooy's PSV pupil has 11 direct goal involvements in the Eredivisie this season – no teenager has more – with his seven goals coming in just six starts in the Dutch top flight, at an average of just over one for every four non-penalty shots.

Manchester United lost further ground to Premier League leaders Manchester City as they played out a 0-0 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. 

The Red Devils are now 12 points behind Pep Guardiola's seemingly unstoppable side, who are well on their way to a third title in four seasons. 

Elsewhere, Liverpool returned to winning ways against Sheffield United and Arsenal came from behind to beat Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. 

A Gareth Bale-inspired Tottenham cruised past Burnley 4-0, while Crystal Palace and Fulham played out a dour 0-0 draw.

Chelsea 0-0 Manchester United: Red Devils' 'big six' struggles continue

While this result stretched United's unbeaten away run in the league to a whopping 20 matches – the joint-fifth-longest run in top-flight history – there was still a sense of disappointment at full-time. 

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side have now failed to score in their last six league meetings with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City or Tottenham, with each of their last four such matches finishing goalless. 

This fixture has now finished 0-0 in both matches in a single league campaign for just the second time, the other occasion coming back in 1921-22. 

It marked the first time Chelsea have drawn 0-0 against an opponent home and away in the Premier League in the same season for the first time since 2008-09 against Everton, while United last did so against Aston Villa in 1996-97.

Thomas Tuchel can at least toast becoming just the second coach to not concede a single goal in his first four home matches in the Premier League after Brendan Rodgers in 2011-12 with Swansea City. Including his final two such matches in charge of Paris Saint-Germain, Tuchel has gone six games without conceding at home in league competition.

Sheffield United 0-2 Liverpool: Klopp's men get back on track

After four consecutive top-flight defeats champions Liverpool got their top-four bid back on track at Bramall Lane. 

Curtis Jones opened the scoring with his second goal for the Reds. In doing so, he became the youngest Liverpool player (20 years and 29 days) to score an away Premier League goal since Raheem Sterling in December 2014 against Burnley (20y 18d).

Their second – an own goal by Kean Bryan – was their 7,000th in the English top-flight, becoming only the second team to reach that tally after Merseyside rivals Everton (7,108).

Adrian was in goal for Jurgen Klopp's men and the Spaniard has now been on the winning side in 10 of his 12 Premier League starts for the club, although this was only his third clean sheet. 

The Blades, meanwhile, have now lost 21 games this season. They are the first side since Newport County in the fourth tier in 1970-71 to lose as many as 21 of their first 26 matches in an English Football League season.

Tottenham 4-0 Burnley: Brilliant Bale torments sorry Clarets

Bale was at his best as Tottenham registered their biggest Premier League home win since they thumped the Clarets 5-0 in December 2019. 

His first came after just 68 seconds, which was the fastest goal Burnley have ever conceded in a Premier League match. The previous quickest was a Yerry Mina effort after 99 seconds for Everton in December 2018.

Harry Kane doubled Spurs' advantage to continue his fine run against Sean Dyche's side. No player has scored more Premier League goals against Burnley than Kane (eight, level with Riyad Mahrez), with the England striker involved in 10 goals in his last six league appearances against them (seven goals, three assists).

Lucas Moura added a third before Bale wrapped up the scoring to take his goal involvements to seven in his last four appearances in all competitions. 

At the back, Hugo Lloris celebrated his 100th clean sheet in the competition. He became the 16th goalkeeper to reach that landmark, while he is the ninth quickest to reach it (285 games).

Burnley, meanwhile, have now lost 12 of their last 15 away top-flight matches against Spurs, shipping 48 goals and conceding at least four goals in seven games.

Leicester City 1-3 Arsenal: Gunners storm back to end 'top three' hoodoo

Arsenal ended a four-game winless run against the Foxes in the Premier League, securing their first victory against them in the competition since October 2018. 

It started poorly for Mikel Arteta's side, though, with Youri Tielemans scoring his sixth goal of the season early on. That is as many as he had scored in his first two seasons at the club combined. 

David Luiz pulled the Gunners level before Alexandre Lacazette put them ahead from the penalty spot. The France international has converted all five of his penalties for Arsenal across all competitions, while only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (13) has now netted more goals for the Gunners than Lacazette (11) this term.

Nicolas Pepe sealed the three points and has now equalled his Premier League goal tally from last season, scoring five this campaign in 13 fewer appearances (18 this term, 31 last season).

The result marked Arsenal's first away victory against a team starting the day in the top three of the Premier League since January 2015 (2-0 v Manchester City) – they were winless in their last 14 such games ahead of this clash (D3 L11).

Crystal Palace 0-0 Fulham: Lucky Eagles escape with a point

It should come as no surprise that this game ended goalless given Fulham's penchant for draws this season. 

Just one of the Cottagers' first 21 Premier League games under Scott Parker ended level, but the stalemate at Selhurst Park was their 10th draw in their last 15 top-flight matches. 

They were comfortably the better side and attempted 16 shots. Fourteen of those came in the second period – the most they have had in the final 45 minutes of a Premier League away game since 2003-04 without scoring.

Palace, meanwhile, have somehow managed to pick up four points from their last two league games despite attempting just six shots (facing 41), having only nine touches in the opposition box (compared to 70 by their opponents), and completing just 442 passes (compared to their opponents' 1065).

Indeed, they managed just 33 attempts in their five Premier League matches in February – the lowest recorded by a team in a single month of at least five games since the start of the 2003-04 campaign.

Curtis Jones dedicated his goal at Sheffield United to Liverpool team-mate Alisson, whose father died in tragic circumstances in Brazil.

Alisson was not included in Liverpool's squad as the reigning Premier League champions stopped their slide with a 2-0 win over the struggling Blades on Sunday.

It was reported that Jose Agostinho Becker drowned on Wednesday while swimming close to his holiday home. The 57-year-old was declared missing and, following a search, his body was found.

Jones scored the opener at Bramall Lane, with Kean Bryan's own goal then securing a much-needed victory for the Reds.

"It's been a difficult time for myself and the rest of the team, but I'm happy that I got on the scoresheet and I'd like to take this time to say that this goal is for Ali's dad, actually," Jones told Sky Sports.

"So, may he rest in peace and if Ali sees this, this is for you bro."

Asked how difficult the news had been for Liverpool's squad, Jones replied: "He's a strong lad, a big part of the team of course.

"He's not here today, we miss him for sure. I'd like to give the goal to him, his dad and the rest of his family."

Jones' goal was his second in the Premier League, and his first away from Anfield, while the 20-year-old midfielder also became the youngest Liverpool player to score a top-flight goal on the road since Raheem Sterling against Burnley in 2014.

"I'm a player that likes to assist and score goals – I think the right time is now," Jones added. "We've had good games but not scored as many goals as we'd like.

"Today was a good example of it all coming together. It was a good performance."

Jones finished with a game-high four goal attempts, with three of them on target, while his passing accuracy of 96.3 per cent was better than that of any other player who started the game.

It was a display which came as no surprise to Jurgen Klopp, who said it is vital that Jones – who was involved in both goals – starts to produce at the top end of the pitch on a consistent basis.

"A top player, no doubt about that. That's why he was playing. He was very important," Klopp said.

"We have talked about him being involved in more goalscoring situations as well, that's clear. Everyone has space for improvement. Tonight he was involved [in the goals] – that's good."

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