There might be a temptation to think Denmark are riding a wave of goodwill at these European Championships after the world watched Christian Eriksen collapse on the pitch three weeks ago, but their run to the semifinals of Euro 2020 is being driven by more than just destiny and fairytale.
There was nothing mysterious about their 2-1 win over Czech Republic on Saturday. Denmark are good players, well coached by Kasper Hjulmand, and are able to score goals of high quality and equally defend with grit. Denmark are ranked as the 10th best team in the world for a reason.
Still, what they have been able to achieve without Eriksen, their best player, remains remarkable. There were Denmark players in tears as they warmed up for the restart of their opening game with Finland after having seen Eriksen leave the pitch on a stretcher, barely conscious. Many of them, understandably, seemed to play out 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.
Before the tournament, Denmark had not won a knockout game at the Euros since winning it in 1992, when they were asked to replace Yugoslavia at a weeks’ notice. Now they have a semifinal at Wembley to look forward to. They have already won there once this season, beating England 1-0 in the Nations League in October.
Underdogs? Yes. Rank outsiders? Not a chance.
“It’s hard to put into words,” said Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel afterwards.
“The Czech Republic is an insanely difficult team to play against. 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 when the final whistle came.”
Played in sweltering heat in Baku, Azerbaijan, Thomas Delaney gave Denmark the perfect start after five minutes with a header angled into the net from Jens Stryger Larsen‘s corner. It was not without its fortune after replays showed Czech Republic should have been given a goal kick after the ball came off Kasper Dolberg, but there was nothing lucky about Denmark’s second.
Joakim Maehle was sent racing away down the left just before half-time and, with the outside of his right boot, bent in a cross which was met at the back post by Dolberg’s cushioned volley.
Dolberg was chased by some of Europe’s biggest clubs as a teenager at Ajax. Now 23 and playing in the France with Nice, he is using the Euros to remind everyone what all the fuss was about. He’s started two games, scored three goals and surely to be in the team at Wembley on Wednesday against either England or Ukraine.
Patrik Schick‘s fifth goal of the tournament — a clever volley ushered into the far corner — gave Czech Republic hope they could pull off a comeback similar to those of Croatia against Spain and Switzerland against France, but Denmark managed the second half like they’ve been in this position a thousand times before.
The back three repelled what eventually became an aerial assault, and Denmark could have added at least one more had they been more clinical on the break.
“Denmark are a great team,” said Czech Republic captain Vladimir Darida. “They defended well, and the early goal helped their tactics. It is so hard to get into them. It is just a pity.
“There is nothing we should be ashamed of. We showed good performances, fighting spirit, we fought like the lions on our crest. That was obvious in today’s match also.
“It is a pity we could not equalise, because I believe that 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 passes of the tournament, but there was plenty more in the performance that won’t make the highlight reel. There was Andreas Christensen risking a bloody nose to challenge Tomas Soucek and prevent the West Ham midfielder from heading in an equaliser, and Schmeichel racing out to smother a chance which had fallen to Tomas Holes.
Dolberg’s finish was superb, but so was his stooping header to clear a Czech free kick from his near post, and then his sprint out to block a subsequent cross in. Denmark are not short of support at these Euros, but they are not lacking in talent and work ethic, either.
It takes more than just a nice story to reach the last four of a major tournament. Their place among Europe’s best is well deserved.