Young blood: Portugal and Italy among nations needing injection of youth
As Portugal and Sweden contested the UEFA Under-21 Championship earlier this summer, fans could be forgiven for thinking the future was bright for these two nations. Yet, their exciting youth seem a long way off any real impact on the senior stage.
For winners of that prestigious crown Sweden, there has long been an over-reliance on experience and the old guard, despite modest returns. In their recent defeat to Russia in Euro 2016 qualifying, which leaves them just one point ahead of their victors and clinging on to second spot in a unspectacular Group G, the Blue-yellow fielded just one player under 25 but seven aged 30 or over.
With a reputation for drab football and being tournament also-rans, what do the Swedes truly have to lose? Few expect the Scandinavian side to compete in France with their current roster, relying unhealthily on ageing but still acrobatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Of course, no country wants to pile the pressure on future prodigies too quickly, and making the transition from Under-21 tournament to the senior showpiece in one year may appear too hasty a leap.
Though, how many of the Swedish starting XI will still be playing at the required level come 2018? Surely it would be better to blood their silverware-laden young-guns now.
Besiktas centre back Alexander Milosevic, energetic midfielders Oscar Lewicki and Abdul Khalili plus powerful forward Isaac Kiese Thelin from that heralded Under-21 team are, to be fair, on the senior side’s fringes. Though, as some of the more memorable performers in the Czech Republic, just 14 caps between the four 23-year-olds, no longer spring chickens, is a poor haul.
While there is no future Ibrahimovic lurking in the fledgling quartet, their exuberance, fresh legs and sheer willpower could certainly benefit the spark-less Swedes right now.
As for fellow Under-21 finalists Portugal (25/1 with Coral to win Euro 2016) there is similar stalling with starlets, though Sporting Lisbon midfield scrapper William Carvalho is a semi-regular fixture when fit. It is tough to argue with results and boss Fernando Santos has brought those solidly since being brought in to steady the ship, though he has kept faith with stalwarts such as Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho.
Should the Navigators, currently topping Pool I, meet quality opposition in the France finals, fans must suspect the team will revolve heavily around the one and only Cristiano Ronaldo yet again.
If the superstar is to taste international trophies, he needs a team to support, not be carried by, him. Faded hopes such as Ricardo Quaresma and Eder Lopes are evidently not the answer to that, but taking a punt on Portuguese youth might be.
While it is refreshing not to see familiar faces such as Hugo Almeida and Helder Positga in the set-up, bringing on Monaco magician Bernardo Silva for five minutes in a prestige friendly against France, sums up a sometimes frustratingly slow induction process.
The same can also be said in Italy, where Antonio Conte is being criticised for favouring foreign-born players such as Palermo string-puller Franco Vazquez, of Argentine origin, and Sampdoria striker and Brazil native Eder Citadin Martins.
While the Azzurri (14/1 to be Euro 2016 champions) still looking to ageing pass-master Andrea Pirlo for answers, have never been renowned for youth policy, Italian football needs a shake-up. If Conte is willing to risk the wrath of traditionalists and look outside the peninsula, he should also take note of the likes of Domenico Berardi, still criminally uncapped despite 15 strikes for Sassuolo last season, right on his doorstep.