Euro 2020: Kevin de Bruyne's brilliance for Belgium leaves Denmark in danger of early exit

Manchester City star powers team to knockout stage with 2-1 win in Copenhagen

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More than most, Denmark know the importance of a prolific playmaker, a footballer who can create and score in equal measure. In Christian Eriksen, they have lost one.

That they were condemned to defeat by another, in Kevin de Bruyne, felt doubly cruel in a game where Denmark were outstanding at the start and spirited in a finale when Martin Braithwaite headed against the bar. But De Bruyne’s catalytic cameo produced an assist, a goal and a Belgium win that leaves Denmark in danger of an early exit.

The Manchester City midfielder had not played since fracturing his skull in a collision with Antonio Rudiger in the Champions League final. He was not deemed fully fit but Roberto Martinez sent for the cavalry after a first half when the world's top-ranked team had been distinctly second best. De Bruyne transformed the game. Belgium emerged victorious to join Italy in the last 16.

And yet, if there had always seemed the chance Eriksen would inspire Denmark in this tournament, he did, though not in a way anyone could have envisaged a week ago.

They were understandably distracted in defeat to Finland but, on their return to the ground where he suffered a cardiac arrest, they looked galvanised by a brush with tragedy. They scored the second-fastest goal in the history of the European Championships. They played like men possessed. It can be hard to stop a team with a cause and it took one of the world's finest players, in De Bruyne, to do so.

On and off the pitch, Denmark did everything they could to stage a fitting tribute to a stricken teammate. Eriksen was believed to have watched on from the hospital within sight of the Parken Stadium, apparently wearing his Denmark shirt. He will have a heart-starting device fitted.

He should have been left in no doubt how much he means. Belgium kicked the ball out after 10 minutes, signifying Eriksen’s number, and the game paused for a minute’s applause by all present. His Inter Milan team-mate Romelu Lukaku was clearly moved. Simon Kjaer and Kasper Schmeichel hugged each other; traumatic times have showed what an admirable character each is.

By then, their side led. Belgium were sluggish and overpowered at the start. Martinez recalled Jason Denayer, a decision that backfired when the defender gave the ball away and darted out of position, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg teed up Yussuf Poulsen and he drove a shot past Thibaut Courtois.

A goal after 99 seconds was greeted with a deafening roar and, perhaps, a sense of relief. Eriksen’s on-pitch significance lay partly in the fact he had four times as many international goals as anyone else in the Denmark squad. Poulsen can be a selfless sidekick but he provided a clinical strike.

Then Courtois stopped each wing-back, Joakim Maehle and Daniel Wass, from doubling the lead. If it showed Denmark’s intent, it also reflected a change of shape. They adapted to Eriksen’s absence by switching to 3-4-3. It was a recognition that he was irreplaceable.

As Belgium’s aging defence creaked – and highlighted vulnerabilities that could cost them later in the tournament – Denmark continued with their assault. Braithwaite headed wide, the excellent Mikkel Damsgaard rolled a shot just past the far post and the terrific Thomas Delaney came close.

But Martinez had two talismen in reserve. He turned to De Bruyne at the break and his impact was swift and devastating. Belgium had posed virtually no threat until De Bruyne sprang the offside trap with a pass for Lukaku. He accelerated into the box to take the return ball and slid a low pass to give Thorgan Hazard a tap-in.

Eden Hazard was the second substitute summoned and, like his brother, he combined well with De Bruyne. Lukaku was again involved, Hazard found De Bruyne and he drilled in an unstoppable shot.

Denmark’s efforts should leave them proud but the loss means they are still without a point.