It might be tempting to think Denmark are riding a wave of goodwill at these European Championships after the world watches Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch three weeks ago, but their run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020 is guided by more than fate and fairy tale.
There was nothing mysterious about their 2-1 win more than Czech Republic the Saturday. Good players, who are well trained by Kasper Hjulmand, and are able to score high quality goals and also defend with courage. Denmark is ranked as the 10th best team in the world for a reason.
Yet what they were able to achieve without their best player Eriksen remains remarkable. There were Danish players in tears as they warmed up for the restart of their opener with Finland after seeing Eriksen leave the field on a stretcher barely conscious. Many of them, naturally, seemed to be playing the 1-0 defeat in a daze. Against the Czechs, however, there was energy and determination and at the final whistle there were tears of a different kind.
Prior to the tournament, Denmark had not won a knockout Euro game since winning in 1992, when they were only asked to replace Yugoslavia with one week’s notice. Now they have a semi-final at Wembley to look forward to. They’ve already won it once this season, beating England 1-0 in the League of Nations in October.
Outsiders? Yes. Classify the outsiders? No chance.
“It’s hard to express,” said the Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel after.
“The Czech Republic are an incredibly difficult team to face. We played well in the first half, but the second was difficult. We can fight and fight, and we did. It was a great relief at the final whistle. “
Performed in the sweltering heat in Baku, Azerbaijan, Thomas delaney gave Denmark a perfect start after five minutes with a pointed header into the net of Jens Stryger Larsenthe corner. It was not without fortune after reruns showed the Czech Republic should have received a goal kick after the ball came out Kasper Dolberg, but Denmark was not lucky.
Joakim maehle was sent running to the left just before half-time and with the outside of his right boot, bent into a cross which was met at the back post by Dolberg’s soft volley.
Dolberg was chased by some of Europe’s biggest clubs as a teenager at Ajax. Now 23 years old and playing in the France with Pleasant, he uses euros to remind everyone why everyone is making such a big deal out of them. He has started two games and scored three goals and will surely be in the Wembley squad on Wednesday against England or Ukraine.
Patrik Schickthe tournament’s fifth goal – a smart volley tossed into the far corner – gave the Czech Republic hope for a comeback similar to that of Croatia against Spain and Switzerland against France but Denmark handled the second half as if it had done thousands of times before.
All three full-backs fought off what ultimately turned into an air assault and Denmark could have added at least one more if they had been more clinical at the break.
“Denmark are a great team,” said Czech Republic captain Vladimir Darida. “They defended well and the goal early in the game helped their tactics. It’s so hard to get into them. It’s just a shame.
“There is nothing we should be ashamed of. We showed good performances, a fighting spirit, we fought like lions on our crest. It was also evident in today’s game.
“It’s a shame we weren’t able to equalize, because I think it would have turned our way then.”
Without their star man Eriksen, Denmark’s strength lies in the collective. Maehle’s cross for Dolberg’s goal was one of the tournament’s assists, but there were plenty more in the performance that won’t bring out the climax. There was Andreas Christensen risk bleeding the nose to challenge Tomas Soucek and stop the West Ham midfielder from heading for an equalizer and Kasper Schmeichel running to smother a chance that had fallen to Tomas Holes.
Dolberg’s finish was superb, but his head bowed too to clear a Czech free-kick from his near post, then his sprint to block a later cross. Denmark doesn’t lack support for these Euros but they don’t lack talent and work ethic either.
It takes more than a great story to reach the last four of a major tournament. Their place among the best in Europe is well deserved.