Denmark are on a mission they never wished to undertake, inspired by a tragedy their players may never truly absorb, yet their uplifting march to the European Championship semi-finals is not entirely explained by the spirit they have found following Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest. That is too simplistic and a disservice to Kasper Hjulmand and his players, who performed with a quality equal to their impressive resolve in overcoming the Czech Republic in Baku.
Joyous disbelief was etched on to the faces of Danish staff, players and fans after an exhausting but well-earned quarter-final victory. Parallels with the improbable triumph of 1992 continue and Denmark will see no reason to fear their semi-final opponents at Wembley on Wednesday. The motivation to fight for a fallen teammate provides formidable strength, naturally, but the Czechs were defeated by a calculated gameplan executed brilliantly in the first half and then determination to get over the line in the second. The two sides of Denmark were a further tribute to the management of Hjulmand, who has enriched the Euros not only with his human touch in the most traumatic circumstances but with a sure touch from the sidelines.
The Czech Republic had been resolute throughout their last‑16 defeat of the Netherlands on Sunday yet were sliced open repeatedly in a first half that ultimately decided the contest. Hjulmand targeted the wings and his team got in behind Tomas Kalas and company easily.
Joakim Mæhle produced a moment of genuine class that made all the difference. Early in the second half, after a double substitution from Jaroslav Silhavy had switched momentum in favour of the Czech Republic, the Denmark coach responded in kind to nullify the growing threat. Two increasingly tired teams were left trading feeble blows.
Tomas Vaclik, the Czech goalkeeper, was beaten inside five minutes when his defenders deserted Thomas Delaney at a corner. Simon Kjær executed a training ground block on Tomas Holes as Jens Stryger’s cross arrived in the area, but even so Silhavy will have been appalled at the lack of attention his players paid to Delaney. A textbook header from the unmarked midfielder provided the platform for Denmark’s comfortable first half.
Mæhle provided the beauty in Denmark’s display with arguably the assist of the Euros, an exquisite cross from the outside of the left wing-back’s right boot that Kasper Dolberg volleyed home to double their advantage. It was another demonstration that this is not some workaholic team propelled by a greater cause: there is a quality to the collective that Denmark’s semi-final opponents can ill-afford to ignore.
The forward line of Mikkel Damsgaard, Martin Braithwaite and Dolberg complemented each other nicely, the sum of their disparate parts providing an effective balance against a passive Czech team. It took the half-time introductions of Jakub Jankto and Michael Krmencik, an additional forward, to finally enliven Silhavy’s side and make Denmark fight for their place in the last four. Hjulmand reacted by withdrawing Damsgaard and Dolberg for a midfielder, Christian Nørgaard, and Yussuf Poulsen, who underlined the range of attacking options available to Denmark with an incisive return from injury.
With the pressure on, the aerial threat increasing and Patrik Schick sweeping home his fifth goal of the tournament to become its leading scorer, Kasper Schmeichel and the captain, Kjær, seized the responsibility they have displayed off the pitch to preserve Denmark’s narrow lead.
Schmeichel saved confidently from Krmencik and Antonin Barak. Luck was on Kjær’s side when he sliced a clearance from Jankto’s volley wide of his own goal and not into it at close range. He earned it: the Denmark captain, nursing an injury, was again immovable in central defence and to the fore when fatigue afflicted both sets of players and drained the contest as a spectacle. We have Uefa to thank for that.
Denmark have driven themselves to Wembley in spite of the obstacles placed in their way by European football’s governing body. So much for an authority that has the best interests of players and supporters at heart. Having been given little choice but to finish the Finland match after Eriksen had been taken to hospital, they and the Czech Republic had to travel to oil-rich Azerbaijan for a quarter-final their fans would have struggled to attend even without a pandemic added to the complications. The Danes had the bigger following – the Czech support numbered only in the hundreds – but there should have been so many more bringing the noise to a game of this magnitude. With sweat pouring down the faces of players during the national anthems, the sheer folly of having to travel ,more than 2,000 miles for a European Championship game in Asia was underlined once more. And for football’s next trick: a Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
The heat, the ridiculous schedule and the travel took an inevitable toll in the final stages and it must be a concern for Denmark how much energy they will have left by the time they walk out at Wembley. That worry can wait. Hjulmand and his indefatigable team continue to find a way.