Any team reaching the semi-final of a major tournament starts thinking to itself that, just maybe, its name is on the trophy. Players look back on key turning points, read positive signs into those moments when luck seemed to be with them.
In the case of Denmark, who meet England for a place in the Euro 2020 final on Wednesday night, the improbable journey to the last four has featured more than just arbitrary, scattered omens. It has inspired many people well beyond their courageous, determined squad.
As they looked ahead to Wembley, the Danes once again cited Christian Eriksen, the star who is with them in spirit but necessarily apart. Eriksen collapsed, suffering a sudden, shocking cardiac arrest just before half-time in Denmark’s opening fixture. He spent the following days in hospital. The teammates who gathered around the stricken Eriksen in the Parken stadium three and half weeks ago had feared for his life.
The player is now recuperating at home and progressing as well as can be expected. Denmark meanwhile have progressed in the tournament further than most expected, and beyond almost anybody’s forecast in the immediate aftermath of Eriksen’s collapse in the match against Finland. After a long delay to the game, during which players from both teams were eventually assured Eriksen was in a stable condition, the match resumed. Denmark lost 1-0.
They were then defeated by Belgium, 2-1, and with the campaign overshadowed by what had happened to their most gifted footballer, their one true star, the possibility of reaching the knockout phase became very remote. It required an emphatic victory in the final Group B match against Russia, and some luck with how the calculations to find the best third-place finishers all added up.
Denmark scored four times against the Russians. They scored another four against Wales. “It’s Christian who gives our wings,” head coach Kasper Hjulmand said as the fairytale gathered pace, with an impressive 2-1 quarter-final victory against the Czech Republic.
Hjulmand’s skill has been to manage, absorb and channel the emotional impact of what happened 43 minutes into Denmark’s championship, when Eriksen fell to the ground. There is no doubting Eriksen is ever-present in the thoughts of Denmark’s players, support staff and their fans. But there is a narrow, professional focus, too. Eriksen had been the centre-piece of the team for many years, the playmaker they wanted on the ball more than anybody. Without him, Denmark have had to adapt, not just psychologically but in how they operate in a very practical sense.
They do not lack for leaders. Simon Kjaer has been a model captain on the pitch and thoughtful in his public-facing duties. Likewise Kasper Schmeichel, the goalkeeper. The “intensity” of Denmark’s gameplan, as designed by Hjulmand, is driven by the hard-working central midfielders, Tottenham Hotspur’s Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Borussia Dortmund’s Thomas Delaney.
Denmark v Czech Republic player ratings
The revelations have been Mikkel Damsgaard, the 21-year-old promoted to a starting place because of Erikson’s absence, a confident dribbler with an eye for goal and the unexpected pass, and Joakim Maelhe. Maehle has covered so much ground, so effectively at left wing-back that England, preparing to deal with Denmark’s width and quick counter-attacks, have given serious thought to whether they should change their shape, to match Hjulmand’s 3-4-3 formation.
Maehle, of Atalanta, has two goals so far in the tournament. He may also be the proud owner of the best cross so far at Euro 2020, the one he arrowed in with the outside of his right boot, for Kasper Dolberg’s goal against the Czechs. Hjulmand enjoyed that: he sees the positioning of Maehle, who is right footed, on the left flank not as an awkward compromise, but as a strength. It means the wing-back can go past his marker either way. He can certainly take on any opponent in a sprint.
Maehle epitomises Denmark’s stamina, too. They have not had a gentle schedule. There was frustration with the authorities for what some players felt was pressure to play the rest of the Finland match on the same night Erisken had been rushed to intensive care. Denmark then had to voyage all the way to Baku for their quarter-final.
For their semi-final, their supporters will be heavily outnumbered by England’s. Home backing will be noisy throughout, although there will be a point in the evening when Eriksen’s name is murmured. When it is, expect applause to spread across both sets of supporters.