It could have gone either way on Sunday night. If only Jakob Poulsen’s effort had glanced the other side of the post, if only Nicklas Bendtner had been given the penalty, and if only the name on the big screen at the stadium in Lviv included an extra 't' and a 'n'. Bender, Bendtner, these are the fine lines by which games are won and lost.
But the gods of football did not favour the Danes that evening in Ukraine, and an inspired performance against tournament favourites Germany was not enough to see them through.
Michael Krohn-Dehli’s second goal of the tournament had equalised an early Lukas Podolski strike, and with the Dutch leading against Portugal at the time, Danish hopes were high. But in a flash everything changed. Cristiano Ronaldo scored for the Portuguese and Denmark suddenly needed all three points. The match hung in the balance for long periods of the second half. Germany had the lion’s share of the possession, but couldn’t capitalise, while Denmark went desperately close when Poulsen hit the post.
Then things got worse. Portugal took the lead against the Netherlands and Lars Bender put the Germans up after some unforgivable defending by Poulsen who let Bender stroll into the box and snuff out the Danish dreams. Agger was close with a header as time ran out, but there was no way Denmark would score two goals in the final ten minutes. As the ref blew the final whistle, the Danish players slumped to the ground with a mixture of disappointment and exhaustion.
Before the tournament had even started, it was apparent that Denmark would have to fire on all cylinders if they were to have any chance of progressing from the dreaded Group of Death. While some players rose to the occasion, flourishing in the Ukrainian sunshine, others, for whatever reason, failed to impress and lift the team.
Three players that sparkled
An injury to the first choice keeper, the out-of-form Thomas Sørensen, in a pre-tournament friendly against Brazil proved to be a blessing for the team. His replacement, Stephan Andersen, rose masterfully to the challenge and has been one of the best keepers in the tournament thus far. His performance against the Netherlands in the first game was absolutely brilliant.
There were few who predicted that Michael Krohn-Dehli, the little Brøndby left-winger, would score two goals and be one of the stars for Denmark at the Euros. But Michael Krohn-Dehli became the unlikely hero and wrote himself into Danish football folklore thanks to his stunning goal against the Netherlands and followed that up with an assist against Portugal and another goal against Germany.
His career has been marred by injuries so the Danish fans could be forgiven for not counting on Daniel Agger lasting the three games in Ukraine. But the tattoo-ridden Danish captain not only lasted the distance, but marshalled the back four with a poise and passion perhaps not seen for Denmark since coach Morten Olsen was the libero in the 1980s. Agger’s crunching tackles, domination in the air and his ability to read the game kept the Danes in many games when they were on the back foot. A massive inspiration.
Three players that fizzled
Christian Eriksen is considered one of the brightest talents in Europe and there were high expectations that his creative spark would give the Danes a creative edge not seen since the Laudrup brothers. Alas, Eriksen seemed jaded and was virtually invisible throughout the tournament, barely even having a shot on goal. The young starlet was by far the biggest disappointment for the Danes.
To be fair, Dennis Rommedahl did pick up an injury against Portugal and didn’t play versus Germany, but the experienced winger with more than a century of caps offered little in terms of going forward. His crossing was especially dire, and defensively he was far too lethargic against Portugal, costing Denmark a goal early on. This tournament may mark the end of his international career.
Of the five goals Denmark conceded in Ukraine, Simon Poulsen was directly involved in four of them. Despite playing well against the Dutch, lax defending allowed Portugal to score twice from crosses by the man Poulsen was marking, and then he oddly failed to close down Silvestre Varela when Portugal scored their winner. Against Germany, Poulsen again looked poor as he allowed Thomas Müller with his back to goal to turn and cross the ball to Lukas Podolski who promptly scored.
In most matches there are key moments during which the games are decided and the three close games Denmark were involved in were no exception.
In the first game against the Netherlands with Denmark clinging to a 1-0 lead and the Netherlands pushing forward, goalkeeper Stephan Andersen made a series of saves that kept the Danes ahead and allowed them to preserve the fragile lead. One sequence was particularly important as Andersen made a double save, first of all denying Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and then thwarting Ibrahim Affelay’s follow-up after a spectacular pass from Wesley Sneijder.
Against Portugal, Denmark had come back from two goals down to equalise with ten minutes left, but then substitute Varela was given far too much space to score the winner with five minutes remaining. Simon Poulsen did his best to disappear to allow the Portuguese forward to turn and power a shot home.
With the game tied at 1-1 in the second half of the Germany game and Denmark needing a win to progress, Jakob Poulsen suddenly found himself free on the edge of the German box. But Poulsen’s effort clipped the outside of the post denying the Danes an opportunity to win the game and send the Germans home.
But as the Danes pack their bags and set off for home, they can hold their heads high knowing they have exceeded expectations. The bitter disappointment of coming so close to progressing to the quarter-finals will be washed away by the brilliant performance by the team picked to be the whipping boys of the Group of Death.
And they can’t rest too long on their laurels either. Already in September, the quarter-final bound Czech Republic will visit Denmark in a match that heralds the beginning of the qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Italy and Bulgaria will also provide stern opposition in the group, but the future looks bright for the Danish football team. They may not have provided that miracle, but they’re young, hungry and have certainly won the hearts of the Danish fans.