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 By Michael Cox

Can Verratti, De Gea and Kane break into their national teams' starting XIs?

The European Championship's expansion to a 24-team tournament has a multitude of effects -- one is that it effectively gives the major countries a free pass. Therefore, managers have more license to experiment and evolve their side with significantly less risk of failure.

Here are five fine talents still attempting to break into their country's first-choice XI -- what chance do they have of overhauling more established names?

1. Marco Verratti, Italy

By this stage, we expected Verratti to be Italy's first-choice Regista, considering Andrea Pirlo had repeatedly stated his intention to retire after last summer's World Cup. The playmaker was convinced to extend his glorious international career when his old Juventus boss Antonio Conte took charge, however, and therefore Verratti is still playing second fiddle.

The duo can play together. They started in a three-man midfield alongside Daniele De Rossi in the World Cup opener against England -- the Roma man sat deepest, with the two creators slightly ahead, dictating the play -- and again versus Uruguay. In qualification for Euro 2016, however, Conte hasn't yet started them in the same side, suggesting he thinks the players are mutually exclusive in the deep midfield position.

Pirlo is still a wonderful talent, but by next summer Verratti might have overtaken him. Pirlo now increasingly struggles against high-energy opponents, to the extent that his absence from Juventus' recent trip to Dortmund was actually quite convenient.

The great thing about Verratti, meanwhile, is that the PSG midfielder combines that guile with the tenacity of Pirlo's old midfield colleague Rino Gattuso. Verratti needs to become more disciplined with his ball-winning, but it might be time he becomes Italy's midfielder leader.

If not, Verratti is still 22 and has time on his side. Considering players like Pirlo, Xavi Hernandez and Bastian Schweinsteiger became most revered around the age of 30, Verratti's peak might come in Euro 2024 ...

2. David De Gea, Spain

There is absolutely no question that David De Gea is now a better goalkeeper than Iker Casillas, but that won't be enough for Vicente del Bosque to hand him Spain's No. 1 shirt.

The key to Del Bosque's management of Spain over past seven years has been maintaining harmony within the squad. This hasn't always been easy, considering the number of world-class performers hoping for a starting spot, not to mention historic geographical divisions among Spaniards and a particularly tense recent Real Madrid vs. Barcelona rivalry. Winning helps, of course.

Casillas, in truth, hasn't been Spain's best goalkeeper for much of the last half-decade. In the 2009-10 season, for example, both Liverpool's Pepe Reina and Barcelona's Victor Valdes had better campaigns, but Del Bosque persevered with Casillas for the World Cup because he was the side's leader. For as long as that remains true, he remains Del Bosque's favoured option.

That said, there becomes a tipping point when he simply can't afford to select a clearly inferior goalkeeper. Casillas had a disastrous World Cup, made another crucial error in a 2-1 defeat to Slovakia earlier in qualification and hasn't looked solid at Real this season.

De Gea, meanwhile, has arguably been Europe's best goalkeeper in 2014-15. He started the win over Luxembourg in November, but Casillas was recalled for the victory over Belarus three days later. The Manchester United shot-stopper can't do much more -- it's simply a case of how much attention Del Bosque gives to the political side of this situation.

Marco Verratti, left, David De Gea, middle, and Harry Kane have all had breakout seasons this year but face competition for starting spots from popular players on their national team.

3. Harry Kane, England

No one seems sure how seriously to take Harry Kane. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why, considering the Tottenham youngster now leads the way in the Premier League's Golden Boot race (having been available at 1,000-1 at the start of the campaign), almost single-handedly won the north London derby against Arsenal, and registered his first career hat trick against Leicester last weekend.

To suggest he's a pure goal-poacher would be unfair: he boasts a turn of speed, is clever at taking the ball on the half-turn and is happy contributing outside the penalty box. There's a nagging doubt, though, about Kane's true ability -- he simply doesn't seem particularly good at anything in particular. It will take a couple of seasons before he becomes recognised as a genuine talent, perhaps in the mould of Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller -- a player once described as "either the best bad player in the world, or the worst good player in the world."

There was absolutely no question that Roy Hodgson would select Kane for England's matches against Lithuania and Italy this week, and his chances of starting were improved significantly when Daniel Sturridge withdrew through injury.

Sturridge, realistically, is the man Kane is fighting for the centre-forward spot, considering that captain Wayne Rooney seems undroppable, and has scored six times in his last six matches. Danny Welbeck is also an option, but has never been as prolific as Sturridge last season, or Kane this season.

A goal on debut seems almost inevitable considering his comic-book rise from nobody to new national hero, but realistically it is Kane's 2015-16 form that will determine whether he's England's starting striker at next summer's Euros. England have a habit of playing flash-in-the-pan strikers for one game and then never again -- hopefully Kane will prove his quality in the long-term.

4. Anthony Lopes, Portugal

It often feels like Portugal's starting XI doesn't change too much from one major international tournament to the next, so it's something of a surprise to realise they've effectively had four different No. 1 goalkeepers in the last four tournaments.

In Euro 2008, the spectacular but somewhat inconsistent Ricardo was still around, before giving way to Eduardo, who was arguably the best goalkeeper at World Cup 2010. Rui Patricio was between the posts for Euro 2012, and while he remained first choice for World Cup 2014, injury meant Beto started two of Portugal's three games.

Now, there's a new kid on the block. Lyon's Anthony Lopes might have received his first national team call-up 18 months ago, but he remains uncapped. That shouldn't be the case for long, especially as, technically, Lopes could still opt to represent France instead.

Born and raised in France to two Portuguese parents, Lopes is another off the conveyer belt of promising young talent at Lyon. Hugo Lloris' departure to Tottenham meant he became back-up to Remy Vercoutre, but injury allowed Lopes opportunities -- and he's never looked back.

He shares many characteristics with Lloris, probably having studied him on the training ground as a teenager. Not the tallest, Lopes is good at anticipating danger and, put simply, is an absolutely wonderfully agile shot-stopper. Starring performances against both PSG and Marseille have seen him emerge as among the most dependable performers in Ligue 1, a division packed with quality goalkeepers.

He'll have to impress Portugal manager Fernando Santos sufficiently in training to be given a starting spot, but he certainly has talent. Rui Patricio is a dependable goalkeeper, but Lopes could become world-class.

5. Bas Dost, Netherlands

Bas Dost's sensational rise into one of the Bundesliga's most prolific marksmen is one of European football's major stories this season.

The Wolfsburg striker scored just two goals in the first half of the campaign, but after the winter break he was suddenly sensational, hitting 13 goals in eight games, including a double against champions Bayern, and four in a ridiculous 5-4 win at Bayer Leverkusen.

He continually thumped half-chances into the net with little warning and maximum conviction, to the extent that his brilliant two-syllable name "Bas Dost!" now feels like an onomatopoeia for the thump of the ball, and the ripple of the net.

Recently, however, the goals have dried up. Dost hasn't registered in his past five matches, and when he's not scoring goals, he's not doing too much else. That's the antithesis of what the Netherlands traditionally want from their centre-forward, and Dost will need to improve his all-round game to force his way into Guus Hiddink's plans.

Bas Dost has been on fire in 2015, but can the Netherlands' under-pressure manager Guus Hiddink afford to take a risk on the 25-year-old forward?

Nevertheless, this is his time to shine. Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, the Netherlands' two first-choice forwards over the last year, are out injured and therefore Dost could be handed his international debut this week.

The Dutch have two big fixtures. The first is a home contest against Turkey, which is vital for both sides -- the Dutch have six points from their four games and sit third, behind Czech Republic and Iceland, while Turkey are struggling even more, with four points from four.

Hiddink can't afford to slip up against his former side, or might lose his job, so he might not throw Dost in at the deep end. A friendly against Spain, meanwhile, would be a good test for Dost against major opposition -- a goal there, and he could become the Netherlands' new go-to man for goals.

Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.

 

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