Owing to little more than the fact that they are playing in the European Championships’ customary Group of Death – had they been drawn in Group A, the Danes would arguably have started as group favourites – viewers are likely to see a more cautious Denmark team than is otherwise custom. To refer to the most famous Danish team of all – indeed, the most famous underdog story in the competition’s history – Morten Olsen’s men are more likely to refer to the deep-lying, cautious tenacity of the famous Euro ’92 team than the glorious carefree swagger which won hearts and minds (if not tournaments) during the mid-eighties.
Denmark’s durability will be fully tested as they face the Netherlands in their opening Euro 2012 clash. The Dutch scored 37 goals in qualifying with Klaas Jan Huntelaar, the top goalscorer from the qualification process, netting 12 of those. A prime penalty box poacher, Huntelaar’s childlike goal-hanging is a glorious throwback in an age dominated by hybridised, multifunctional forwards. His speed over five metres and ability to anticipate precisely where the ball will fall brings to mind the likes of Pippo Inzaghi. Such pace and instinct are sure to test the Danish defence.
The problem with dealing with a forward as predatory as Huntelaar is exacerbated by the uncertainty that lies at the heart of the Danish defence. Preceding the 2010 World Cup, Simon Kjaer was pinpointed as one of European football’s outstanding young defenders. A poor 2010/11 season with Wolfsburg followed however, before a loan move to AS Roma.
One of the primary reasons the Giallorossi struggled in Serie A last season was the complete lack of concentration which beset its defence while it tried to adapt to the high-tempo, proactive, possession based football espoused by Luis Enrique. Kjaer’s 12 league appearances did little to help solve the problem. Once a confident, imposing, ball-playing centre-half, Kjaer has regressed into a mistake-riddled shell of his former self. While he is likely to start ahead of the significantly less talented, but somewhat more in-form, Andreas Bjelland, a return to the man whose heightened sense of danger alerted scouts Europe-wide is paramount.
Systemically too, the battle between the proactive Dutch and the counterattacking Danes poses interest. Robin van Persie is likely to drift from inside-left to inside-right in support of the Huntelaar, with Wesley Sneijder probing from a more central position. The fluidity of the Dutch attack demands that the Danes be compact – that their deep-lying central-midfield pair remain no more than ten metres from the defensive four, and the full backs are narrow and cautious in supporting any breakaways.
As such, the injury to Niki Zimling, rushed to hospital in an ambulance during Friday’s final training session, is a significant blow. His doughty partnership with William Qvist screening the defence contributed hugely to a qualification campaign, in which just six goals were conceded. While, characteristically, Christian Poulsen is a like-for-like replacement, the potential break-up of a defensive unit built on positional understanding and unity poses a significant danger against an attack as unpredictable as the Dutch.
Nevertheless, as Zambia’s victory in the 2012 African Cup of Nations, Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph and the landmark Danish triumph of ’92 demonstrate, regressive, reactive football can still be successful in international football. Should Kjaer and Daniel Agger patrol the defence manfully, and should the defensive midfield duo form a disciplined, compact rearguard, Denmark can take real hope going into their difficult opening game.
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