Europe's finest young footballers are this week descending on the Netherlands, where four places at Beijing 2008 are up for grabs in the UEFA European U-21 Championship.

The Dutch, who are aiming to retain the trophy they won in Portugal last year, have the obvious advantage of staging their title defence on home soil, although on this occasion they will need to cope without the predatory talents of the 2006 tournament's top scorer: Klaas Jan Huntelaar. Nevertheless, while the likes of Italy, England and Portugal will be expected to run them close in an eight-team field that also includes Belgium, Serbia, Czech Republic and Israel, it is Foppe de Hann's Jong Oranje who will start the competition as many people's favourites.

Their squad does, after all, boast six of the players who featured in the triumphant campaign that culminated in a 3-0 final win over Ukraine last summer, and though the absence of Huntelaar and Ajax team-mate Urby Emanuelson represents a blow, it is one compensated for by the presence of another Amsterdam-based star, Ryan Babel.

The 20-year-old, who has been linked with a move to some of the continent's top clubs this summer, is already a regular in Marco van Basten's senior squad and he believes that De Hann's squad also possesses a couple of lesser-known stars ready to shine. Asked to name the Dutch 'players to watch', he said: "Midfielder Luigi Bruins and Ismail Aissati, who is already well known in the Netherlands but may not be so famous abroad yet. We have a lot of good players who could be a surprise during the tournament."

The Netherlands will battle it out in Group A with Belgium, Israel and a Portugal side aiming to make amends for a disastrous showing on home soil last summer that saw them fail to progress beyond the group stage. Jose Couceiro's side kick off their campaign against Belgium on Saturday and striker Joao Moreira has made it clear that nothing less than qualifying for the Olympics will be considered acceptable. "We have clear goals as we want to reach the semi-finals so we can play in the next Olympics," said the Valencia man. "Once we've done that, we can think about other things."

Belgium, meanwhile, are weakened considerably by the injury-enforced absence of experienced quartet Vincent Kompany, Moussa Dembele, Jonathan Legear and Steve Colpaert, while Israel are sweating on the fitness of key striker Amit Ben Shushan. Guy Levy's side go into their opening match against the hosts in Heerenveen on Sunday as a relative unknown quantity, although the fact they eliminated France in qualifying would appear to justify Levy's targeting of a place in the last four.

England expects
In Group B, England go into the tournament with a squad brimming with individual talent, from classy utility man Tom Huddlestone through the inventive James Milner to their sought-after striker David Nugent. In the dugout, meanwhile, will be Stuart Pearce, and the man who famously missed a penalty against West Germany in the semi-finals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup™ has had his team practising spot kicks to avoid the kind of exit to which England have become so painfully accustomed.

"I've been to three championships and lost two on penalties," said Pearce, who also lost on penalties to Germany in the last four at UEFA EURO 96. "It might just be the thing that wins us the trophy."

While the English rounded off their preparations with a thumping 5-0 win over Slovakia, 2002 winners Czech Republic have endured a miserable build-up to the tournament during which Tomas Krbecek, Mario Holek and captain Martin Latka have all been struck down by injury.

Serbia, who qualified by overturning a first leg play-off deficit with an incredible 5-0 win in Sweden, have fared a little better, and include in their squad four players who were on duty for the senior squad in the UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifier against Finland on Saturday.

Few, however, will expect the Serbs to claim an Olympic place at the expense of Italy, who arrive in the Netherlands in search of a record sixth European title at this level. In Fiorentina striker Giampaolo Pazzini, who scored a memorable hat-trick to seal a 3-3 with England in the new Wembley's first official match, coach Pierluigi Casiraghi also has a player who thrives on the big occasion.

"We want to play a great tournament to make up for our disappointment in Portugal," the 22-year-old said, referring to the Italians' elimination at the group stage last summer. "We are all serene, and our aim is to win the European Championship. We're an excellent team, very competitive, and I think we have proved that."

Italy begin their campaign against Serbia in Nijmegen on Monday evening, just a few hours after England take on Czech Republic in the group opener in Arnhem.