Euro 2020 began in horribly harrowing fashion for Denmark but it is turning into a tournament they can remember for the right reasons. They are its first quarter-finalists while Wales, instead of repeating 2016’s journey to the last four, conceded four. Five years on, Denmark look the endearing overachievers.
Only the Netherlands or the Czech Republic stand between them and a first semi-final since 1992. Their inspired progress is amounting to a wonderful tribute to their sidelined team-mate Christian Eriksen, who suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch against Finland.
Denmark’s tournament is becoming an example of how to produce an exemplary response to adversity. Their greatest misfortune was losing Eriksen but Yussuf Poulsen had helped compensate with goals against Belgium and Russia.
Then he was ruled out with a hamstring problem. So enter Kasper Dolberg, who promptly scored twice to cap a brilliant performance.
The relentless Joakim Maehle won his duel with Gareth Bale and garnished his display with the third goal and the all-action Martin Braithwaite added a fourth.
Meanwhile, Mikkel Damsgaard offered further evidence of his rich promise as he again looked one of the tournament’s breakout stars, Thomas Delaney was dominant in midfield, Simon Kjaer defended defiantly and Kasper Hjulmand changed the game after Wales made the better start.
Dolberg could enjoy a return to his former home ground. He may not have hit the heights his Ajax career promised but the Nice forward delivered a lovely first goal, curling a 20-yard shot in after Damsgaard found him.
He almost doubled his tally with a near-post flick from Damsgaard’s cross, with Danny Ward saving. Instead, the inadvertent assist for his second came from the Wales substitute Neco Williams, who met Braithwaite’s cross with an awful clearance to Dolberg. He slotted in a shot and Wales’ complaints about a foul on Kieffer Moore in the build-up were in vain.
The majority found plenty to cheer. With many Danes able to travel to Amsterdam and Ajax one of Eriksen’s old clubs, this almost amounted to an away game for Wales. They had produced an outstanding display in similar circumstances against Turkey in Baku but not this time.
Bale made a fine first impression, presenting the Denmark captain Kjaer with a Wales shirt with Eriksen’s name and number on it and the message ‘get well soon’ in Welsh.
Initially, his team-mates struggled to cope without Poulsen and the influential wing-back Daniel Wass. The first 15 minutes promised much for Wales. Bale sent a swerving shot just wide. Aaron Ramsey looked shot-happy and elusive.
But then Hjulmand, who has earned praise for his empathetic leadership in difficult circumstances, offered an illustration of his tactical prowess. He shifted Andreas Christensen forward to mark the Juventus midfielder and Ramsey was quieter thereafter.
Denmark played with dynamism and determination. Wales were outclassed. A passive Robert Page delayed bringing on David Brooks and could not conjure a change as influential as Hjulmand’s reshuffle. Kasper Schmeichel did not have a save of note to make while Denmark continued to threaten.
First the substitute Mathias Jensen flicked the post with a cross and then Braithwaite hit the post and Joachim Andersen almost struck. Then came two late goals, Maehle lifting a shot into the roof of the net and Braithwaite scoring in added time.
Wales were ragged by then and their game ended in ignominy with the substitute Harry Wilson sent off for a hack at Maehle. It may have been harsh but it capped their heaviest ever defeat in a European Championship match.
Wales had lost Connor Roberts to a groin strain earlier and, when Williams erred for the second goal, Page may have wished he had replaced him with the veteran Chris Gunter instead. Wales’ tournament peaked against Turkey. Bale and Ramsey have led them to their greatest moments since the 1950s but perhaps this was their final outing on a major international stage. Wales must hope not.