Euro 2020: Danish fairy tale faces Czech test: Richard Buxton
Being unfancied has set Denmark up for a potentially perfect Euro 2020 run-in.
Over the past week, the likes of England, Switzerland and the Czech Republic all dominated the headlines with emphatic routes into the quarter-finals, dumping out heavyweights Germany, France and the Netherlands respectively in the process.
While the likes of Harry Kane steal top billing at these Finals, the Danes continue to fly largely under the radar.
Kasper Hjulmand’s side head into their last-eight meeting with the Czechs on Saturday (July 3) not only as the tournament’s dark horses, but also its shining lights.
Comparisons between Denmark’s current crop and their triumphant Euro 1992 team are inescapable.
Both sides have a towering member of the Schmeichel family in goal and were shorn of their longstanding talisman under exceptional circumstances.
In 1992, the Danes went to Sweden without Michael Laudrup, who reportedly did not see eye-to-eye with coach Richard Moller Nielsen and retired from international football.
This time around, they lost their talisman under unfortunate circumstances, with Christian Eriksen suffering cardiac arrest in the first game.
Both the 1992 and the current side’s qualification for the knockout stages went down to a final group encounter, too.
That, however, is where the parallels end.
Unlike that remarkable campaign 29 years ago, Hjulmand’s side are seeking to go far for a stricken Eriksen rather than just spiting a stubborn Laudrup.
The Inter Milan playmaker’s near-tragedy during their 1-0 opening loss to Finland in Group B shocked the world and plunged his homeland’s hopes of reaching the knockout stage into huge uncertainty, having also lost their second game to Belgium 2-1.
Yet, in Eriksen’s absence, Denmark showcased their true pedigree by rallying to a resounding 4-1 victory over Russia, booking their passage into the round of 16, where they comfortably disposed of Wales 4-0.
As the Welsh found out, the Danes have the neutrals’ support following Eriksen’s ordeal. Whoever they face automatically becomes the villain of the piece.
The Czechs are set to reprise that role, but it remains to be seen if they have enough to see off the Danes, who are the first team in European Championship history to score four or more goals in consecutive games.
Whoever triumphs in Baku will likely play a semi-final against England, who could not have asked for a more favourable route to a backyard coronation on July 11.
Gareth Southgate’s charges will venture into Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on Sunday morning (July 4) to face Ukraine in their quarter-final, which will be their only away game at Euro 2020.
The Three Lions played all their group fixtures and the last-16 clash with Germany at Wembley, which will also host both semi-finals and the final.
But Wembley won’t be unfamiliar territory to Kasper Schmeichel, who emerged triumphant there in the FA Cup final with Leicester City less than two months ago.
Besides the defeat by Finland, which was understandable under the circumstances, the only team that have beaten the Danes since September 2018 are Belgium – the No. 1 team in the Fifa rankings.
It might take something extraordinary to stop the Danes.