Danes defying group of death

Our man at Euro 2012, Tom Adams, meets a Danish team basking in delight after their surprise 1-0 win over the Netherlands.

Eurosport

Ninety minutes after heroically clinging on for a 1-0 win over Netherlands and orchestrating the first great shock of Euro 2012, a collection of young footballers clad in red polo shirts and dragging identikit luggage cases are gathered in a huddle at the end of the Metalist Stadium mixed zone, the arena in which journalists jostle for a morsel of post-match reaction from players and coaches.

The majority are cracking jokes with each other, Christian Eriksen laughs into a mobile phone and Kasper Schmeichel stares intently at a screen that has captured all of the group's attention. At a time when most footballers have donned their Beats By Dre headphones and snuck onto their luxury team coach to be driven back to a five-star hotel, the unexpected Group B leaders are hanging over a metal barrier in a makeshift marquee and enthusiastically scouting their next opposition as they watch Portugal play Germany.

The message is clear: having seen off the Dutch, this is a Denmark team now relishing the challenge in front of them as they aim to escape Euro 2012's most difficult group. It is a group in which they were widely regarded to have little chance, despite sitting in the top 10 of FIFA's world rankings. It is the group of Mesut Ozil, Wesley Sneijder and Cristiano Ronaldo. And now it is the group that, entirely unexpectedly, has Denmark sitting at its top alongside the Germans.

"We couldn't even dream about this," Ajax's gifted young playmaker Eriksen tells Eurosport as he tirelessly works the room in the manner of a best actor nominee arriving on the red carpet at the Oscars.

"We played really well. After the first 15 minutes we scored a really nice goal. We took our chances. I think we didn't have so many shots on goal but we took them when we could and they were not as dangerous as we thought."

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Though Eriksen and striker Nicklas Bendtner are the big draws for the Danish media, the matchwinner proved to be Michael Krohn-Dehli, a right-sided forward from Brondby, who on 24 minutes collected a deflected pass from left-back Simon Poulsen, dropped a shoulder as he accelerated into the box and thumped a fantastic finish through the legs of Dutch goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg.

As Rafael van der Vaart admits when speaking on behalf of a desperately disappointed Dutch team, "they had one chance and they scored an amazing goal", Krohn-Dehli's sumptuous strike proving to be a brief moment of Danish delight that punctuated an otherwise overwhelmingly dominant yet horribly wasteful evening's work from the Dutch.

Wesley Sneijder produced a nigh-on perfect playmaker's performance from his position tucked up behind Robin van Persie - one through ball for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar drawing gasps from the 40,000 plus in attendance in Kharkiv - but his majesty was undermined by the efforts of the two strikers and, most prominently, Arjen Robben. Despite creating over 30 chances, Bert van Marwijk's side failed to find a way past Stephan Andersen.

As Robben fell to the ground at the final whistle, his face contorted in evident frustration and borderline confusion, it was impossible not to think of the Dutch winger cutting a similarly distressed figure at the conclusion of Bayern Munich's Champions League final defeat to Chelsea just weeks ago. On that night too, Robben was guilty of a succession of misses as his team were undone by their own profligacy.

Denmark, like Chelsea before them, needed a healthy dose of good fortune to prevail. And while a large flag in Metalist Stadium was emblazoned with the legend 'Danish Dynamite', in truth this was a performance a world apart from those associated with the great Danish team of the 1980s that earned the moniker; a team that, along with Netherlands' Total Footballers of the 1970s, was one the most romantic, compelling yet ultimately unrealised football entities of the past 40 years.

Though modern expectation is soaring around the talented Eriksen, who drifted in and out of Saturday evening's game to ultimately little effect, manager Morten Olsen - the captain and libero of the side that so dazzled at Euro 1984 and the 1986 World Cup - does not have at his disposal a midfielder as utterly brilliant as his former team-mate Michael Laudrup, nor a forward as talented as Preben Elkjaer.

Denmark's triumph in Kharkiv, coming just two years after defensive errors saw them lose 2-0 to a Netherlands featuring seven of the same players as Saturday's game in the opening match of their 2010 World Cup campaign, was instead directly attributable to the line of red and white that shielded goalkeeper Stephan Andersen to such great effect: centre-backs Simon Kjaer and Daniel Agger, full-backs Poulsen and Lars Jacobsen and holding midfielders William Kvist and Niki Zimling.

As winger Dennis Rommedahl explains: "When they were needed, the back four and the keeper stood their ground. It was a good performance, we knew that Holland would be a good team and that we would need some luck at times and a bit of quality from the keeper as well. As long as you believe in something you can get results. Let people talk but anything is possible in football. We believed, so we were expecting to win. It's 95 per cent sure that if we win one more we are through to the next round."

Portugal are up next on June 13 in Lviv, before Denmark play Germany at the same venue four days later. A victory in either match and passage should to the quarter-finals should be assured, a scenario that looked rather improbable when the groups were drawn. Indeed, in his press conference tucked under the main stand at Metalist Stadium the day before the match, Olsen even said that if Denmark did manage to make it out of Group B, "we have won already."

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As Denmark's victorious players danced in front of their delighted supporters 36 hours later and chucked their sweaty shirts into the throng, it felt like the party had already started. But as Rommedahl underlines post match, Denmark's focus remains sharp. "It is good for us but we haven't won anything yet," he said. "We have to wait. It is the first game of the group so anything is possible for the rest of the teams."

For the Dutch, the challenge is entirely different. "It is a shock," Van der Vaart admits to Eurosport. "Especially when you are in a difficult group you think when you are playing against Denmark, with all respect, we have to win that game and then feel comfortable in the group. But now it is difficult with two games to go against Germany and Portugal. We need two wins. The Germany game is like a final for us. If you win that game then confidence comes back."

With Netherlands contemplating possible elimination despite their pre-tournament status as third favourites, it appears reports of the group of death have not been greatly exaggerated. If not terminal, Van Marwijk and his players certainly have one foot in the grave.

A moment for sober contemplation for the Oranje then, but not for the Danish fans lining Kharkiv's train station floor after a heavy night on the town. For some, the party continues deep into the next morning as a round of beers are purchased on a 6.20am train to Donetsk. "Michael Krohn-Dehli, you are the love of my life," sing the Danes, appropriating a song formerly reserved for Manchester United's Owen Hargreaves. "Michael Krohn-Dehli, I'd let you s**g my wife."

But while the country's supporters get firmly caught up in the moment as they enjoy a moment of unexpected glory, that huddle of players have their gaze firmly fixed on the stern challenges awaiting them.

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