Denmark: Are they the World Cup’s dark horses?
Denmark failed to lighten up the group stages, but they can’t be written off just yet.
By getting out of their group, Denmark have hit par. Anything else from here on in would exceed expectations, but they have the tools to do so.
The key result was their first one, extinguishing the fervent enthusiasm of a Peruvian side who captured hearts. Defending coolly, they withstood pressure and took their opportunity on the counter-attack, Yussuf Poulsen finishing to make it 1-0.
The second game against Australia was more of a slog, but the 1-1 draw was enough to all but secure qualification to the knockout rounds and set up a forgettable encounter in their final match against France.
With both teams happy to take the point, it was inevitable this would be the tournament’s first 0-0.
Barely resembling football, there are few conclusions to be drawn from their final group game, but it’s precisely this functionality that might surprise people.
Functionality and balance
Of all the teams that qualified for the last 16, few have sneaked under the radar quite like Denmark, who haven’t managed a giant-killing of a Mexico or Croatia, and don’t have the superstar roster of France, Belgium or Brazil. None of their games have been particularly eye-catching.
But such functionality can do well in international football. Portugal won the Euros playing unadventurous football, and Alejandro Sabella took Argentina to the last World Cup final with a safety-first approach.
Denmark have not conceded a goal from open play yet, and the one they did concede was the result of overly harsh officiating. Wildcard referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz, the Mike Dean of Spanish football, awarded a penalty after a VAR replay showed Poulsen’s hand touch the ball after Mathew Leckie headed, only inches away.
Unbeaten and with a good defensive record, Denmark are an organised team and keep their shape well. They will look to emulate the likes of Uruguay and Switzerland to take them further than many expect.
Key to this has been integrating Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen into the back four, and the protection offered by Thomas Delaney further ahead.
To draw further parallels with Fernando Santos’ Portugal or Sabella’s Argentina, Denmark have an ace in the pack capable of edging any tight and edgy encounter.
Christian Eriksen is Denmark’s most important player, as his stunning hat-trick against the Republic of Ireland in the qualification play-off cemented his status as their talisman.
He has stepped up to this responsibility in Russia, playing a key role in the killer counter-attack that separated Denmark and Peru, and he followed that up by scoring one of the goals of the tournament against Australia, a sumptuous half-volley on the edge of the box.
The Croatia match will be an interesting watch for Tottenham fans – a battle between their past and their present. The Dane is now operating at the same level Luka Modric used to in North London, and it’s easy to imagine him playing a similar Champions League winning role at a European superclub in the future.
If Denmark’s back four keep it tight, don’t bet against Eriksen making the difference with a shot from outside the box or a defence-splitting through ball.
An intriguing run to the final
It’s unlikely that Denmark will go all the way, as any fanciful notions of reaching the final should be quelled by a difficult route to the final – Croatia, likely followed by Spain, and one of Sweden, Switzerland, England or Colombia in the semi-final.
Croatia are deservedly favourites in the round of 16 as would any future opponents be. But Denmark can cause an upset.
Zlatko Dalic’s men were arguably the standout team of the group stage, winning all three games and conceding just once, and memorably demolishing Lionel Messi’s Argentina 3-0.
But that game paints a false picture. Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli got the gameplan spectacularly wrong, and it was clear from Messi’s pained facepalm during the anthem that the players didn’t believe in back three. The 4-3 defeat to France has subsequently underlined their defensive frailties.
With better defensive organisation and a formation that gets the best out of Eriksen, Denmark might shock a few people against Croatia. In Euro 2016, this same generation of Croatia players wowed fans in the group stages by defeating Spain, only to exit limply at the hands of Portugal in the next round.
Should they play Spain, they can take solace in how shaky Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos have looked together, David de Gea looking more mortal than usual, and Fernando Hierro out of his depth.
Never has the last 16 of the World Cup appeared so open and unpredictable. Age Hareide and his team should believe in their ability to shake things up further.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 15 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.