SPLIT – In an age when fans of European soccer have more televisual choice than ever before, a fallow summer - at least ahead of the imminent Women's World Cup - can lead to serious withdrawal. So perhaps more than ever, the European Under-21 Championship is under the spotlight. Many nations have named squads reinforced with players with full international experience, begging a question: What is the 'right' way to prepare for the senior European Championship next summer?
It depends, of course, what one sees as the ultimate aim of Under-21 tournaments; whether they are trophies worth winning for their own sake, or whether the provision of experience, preparing players for the rigors of senior competition, is the goal. Given the strength and competitiveness of the teams involved in this summer's tournament in Denmark, we can surmise that the general feeling in Europe is that the former clause is the priority, even if the latter is important too.
The experience in the squads in impressive, with the likes of last summer's World Cup winner Juan Mata for Spain joined by the prospects like Ukraine's Dynamo Kiev forward Andrei Yarmolenko and the dazzling Switzerland winger Xherdan Shaqiri. Shaqiri has been eulogized at length in UK coverage, already firmly in the consciousness courtesy of his stunning goal against England in September's Euro 2012 qualifier on his home club ground of Basel.
Ukraine fielding a strong side is common sense. As the joint host nation next summer with Poland, it has a lot to prove, and with the 2006 World Cup having been the only major tournament it has qualified for, Oleg Blokhin's side needs any practise of dealing with a finals tournament situation it can get. Hence the inclusion of Yarmolenko (who has already appeared 8 times and scored 3 goals for the senior side), his club-mate Artem Kravets and the highly-mature Shakhtar Donetsk centre-back Yaroslav Rakitskiy (10 appearances, 3 goals with the seniors).
As hosts this summer, Denmark has a more immediate need to show its best side, which perhaps explains the call-up of Ajax wunderkind Christian Eriksen. Despite being only 19, the coveted midfielder has 14 full Denmark caps - which made his appearance in the opening game of the tournament, against Switzerland, something of an anomaly. It was his first for the Under-21 side. How much personal benefit the already highly-developed Eriksen has gleaned from these extra few games is a matter for debate.
Switzerland's squad composition highlights an anomaly of a different kind. Shaqiri already has 11 caps, but the likes of Mario Gavranovic, Nassim Ben Khalifa and Granit Xhaka all have less experience than Shaqiri at club level, despite having appeared for the senior side. They have been fast-tracked to the full international team by Ottmar Hitzfeld to ward off predators after Switzerland's Under-17 side lifted the 2009 World Cup in Nigeria, with Ben Khalifa and Xhaka among a host of players who were eligible to play for other nations - Tunisia in the case of Ben Khalifa and both Serbia and Albania for Xhaka. The Bosnian soccer journalist Sasa Ibrulj recently pointed out eight of the Swiss Under-21 squad would be eligible for Kosovo, were it FIFA-recognised as a separate nation.
The inclusion of 23-year-old Mata, a man with 11 full caps, is where the debate starts to thicken. Is there really anything further to be learned at this level for somebody who is part of probably the best squad in international football, who has played over 150 first-team games for Valencia and appeared more than 20 times in the Champions League?
The answer from England would probably be 'no' - certainly from the clubs and many fans, if not the international set-up itself. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere (5 full caps) pulled out to recharge his batteries, after initially declaring himself keen to play. This left the England squad in Denmark with a total of two senior caps - one for Liverpool's new £16m signing (US $25.5m) Jordan Henderson, picked up against France last November and a single too for Danny Welbeck (which he gained against Ghana in March).
To single out Wilshere for criticism is barking up the wrong tree. As previously stated, the decision seemed to be heavily influenced by his club's wishes, and the 19-year-old midfielder has just completed his first season as first choice, playing 49 matches for his club alone. Yet it is inarguable that his presence would not have been beneficial to a side sorely lacking in technical aptitude during its brief tournament stay.
Spain cannot be accused of plundering its players at this age group level for all their worth - before the start of this tournament, former Atletico Madrid defender Santi was the record Under-21 appearance holder with 27, with eight Englishman having equalled or bettered that total. England's problem remains bridging the gap between the junior and senior level, as the continued presence of Fabrice Muamba (31 caps before Euro 2011) and Michael Mancienne (28) in the Under-21 set-up - neither of whom are likely to be graced with a senior debut in the near future - seems to indicate.
Rather, the Spanish are keen to entrench a winning culture at every representative level possible, with the chance of learning to manage and live through the pressure of major finals an opportunity not to be sniffed at. Most of the rest of Europe would seem to agree, though whether the power of the Premier League clubs will ever allow even a willing England to follow suit must remain in doubt.
Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.