Football, more and more, is a game of statistics and details, numbers and analysis, heat maps and algorithms. But it’s also a matter of emotion, and Denmark continue to ride the wave that started three weeks ago when Christian Eriksen suffered cardiac arrest in the first half of his group opener against Finland. A 2-1 win over the Czech Republic on Saturday brought Denmark to their first semi-final in a major tournament since winning it all at Euro 92, and they will face either England or Ukraine with the possibility to return to the final.
Maybe focusing on the emotional side is unfair. Denmark is a very well drilled side, far more than the sum of its parts. He clearly benefited from the management of Kasper Hjulmand, who replaced Åge Hareide last year. It is a recurring pattern in sport that a team thrives under a charismatic man-manager when replacing a relentless taskmaster who has instilled the necessary structure but may not have the capacity to inspire. the self-confidence necessary for the players to express themselves fully for example, at Leicester, when Claudio Ranieri took over from Nigel Pearson).
And yet, emotion has a lot to do with it. Denmark, it should not be forgotten, lost its first two group matches, yet the forces unleashed before this second match, against Belgium, even if the match was lost, continue to resonate. Eriksen’s absence forced a form change that was clearly beneficial, but it’s more than that. Hjulmand spoke after Eriksen’s collapse about how players, facing mortality, contacted family and friends while waiting for the game to restart, minds cleared, little worries allayed. In the camp, a place is still reserved for Eriksen’s dinner; the memory of his fear has been embraced and will not be forgotten.
A useful side effect is to put football in perspective, both to ease the pressure on the players and to promote conviviality, the shared trauma generating the meaning of a quest. That Denmark are the only team to advance to the round of 16 after losing their first two games only adds to the feeling that it’s a fairy tale, that fate is behind it.
Shame was so few were there to see his last triumph. The Baku stadium in Azerbaijan was allowed to be half full, but only about a third of it showed up, around 10,000 in total, including 1,500 Danes and 300 Czechs. This once again raises the question of why UEFA is ready to host matches whose main purpose is to reinforce the image of an autocratic regime. There has been a report that local security confiscated a rainbow flag from Danish fans.
As for the game itself, Denmark, playing with great confidence, were in the lead after just five minutes. The Czechs’ height and prowess were supposed to be among their main threats, but it was from a Danish corner – given controversially – that the opening came. Simon Kjaer made a smart blocking run as Jens Stryger Larsen threw the ball through from the right but, despite everything, Thomas Delaney was left disconcerting without scoring to enter without even having to leave the ground.
Danish right-winger Stryger Larsen was a lingering threat, as was Joakim Maehle on the left. In a first half in which two teams playing identical forms largely canceled out, it was the winger’s forward thrusts that gave Denmark an advantage. That advantage brought in a second goal three minutes before halftime, with Maehle, a right foot playing to the left, crossing with the outside of his right foot for Kasper Dolberg to slam in his third of the tournament.
This year has been difficult for Dolberg. He is only 23 years old but already has a difficult career behind him. Great things were predicted for him when he was at Ajax, but he had started to stagnate when he landed in Nice in 2019. In the last season he ran out of time due to COVID-19 and injuries and had his car and watch stolen. the latter in the hands of a teammate. He only started because of Yussuf Poulsen’s injury, but he scored twice against Wales and added his 10th international goal here. But any idea that the game was over quickly vanished after the break.
Czech Republic coach Jaroslav Šilhavý made two halftime substitutions, changed form to 4-4-2 and was awarded within four minutes as Patrik Schick struck one with a controlled volley from ‘a cross from Vladimír Coufal, equaling Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of the Golden Shoe standings. For a while Denmark faltered, but Hjulmand’s changes, especially Poulsen’s introduction for Dolberg, brought an element of control. In the end, the Czechs were reduced to sending balls, hopefully, into the box, but the three Danish defenders were pretty comfortable with that.
And so the great story continues. Reaching the last eight was probably a realistic goal for Denmark at the start of the competition. He’s gone beyond that now and could go all the way.
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