Denmark face test of nerve as Australia plan for Eriksen’s quality

<span>Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Last week the Denmark head coach, Kasper Hjulmand, announced he had loose plans to duplicate Christian Eriksen. “I would like to clone him,” he said before the side’s group game against France. “I would like to have him in the back of my own penalty area and in front of the other goal.”

The fact that, in the very same press conference, Hjulmand joked that he would also like to borrow Erling Haaland from Norway may reveal something about why they find themselves playing Australia to save their World Cup campaign.

Denmark arrived in Qatar as the darkest of dark horses, with Eriksen back in glittering form and the Nations League win against France in September a clear sign the team had rekindled the panache which won hearts and minds at Euro 2020. Yet here they are, languishing second-last in Group D, having been held by Tunisia and beaten by Kylian Mbappé (and France). Against the latter they attacked brightly enough to suggest they can – should – account for Australia.

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Equally, there is also a sense of trepidation among the Danish media and public, about their capacity to right the ship against a much lower-ranked team who played out of their skins against Tunisia. While not the overriding factor, Hjulmand has spoken of his struggle in dealing with the OneLove armband controversy, of which his country has been at the forefront, and Fifa’s rejection of their “human rights for all” training kits.

On the pitch Denmark need goals, pure and simple, and it seems Hjulmand is yet to land on his strongest combination – one that does not require a clone of his standout player but instead brings out the best in the one he has.

Eriksen – “the heart and soul and brains” of the team, according to Kasper Schmeichel on Sunday – cannot be everywhere all at once. To try would be, as one Danish journalist put it on Monday, damaging to the performances of those around him. Another predicted Hjulmand may shift to a back four in a bid to give Eriksen more freedom than what he had against France. If it works, the 30-year-old could well be the rod in Australia’s back on Wednesday.

The Australia manager, Graham Arnold, congratulates his players after the win against Tunisia
The Australia manager, Graham Arnold, congratulates his players after the win against Tunisia. Photograph: Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Hjulmand says Eriksen is the group’s inspiration, as he was even in his absence at the European Championship. But the coach also points to his breadth of goalscorers; to Jesper Lindstrøm and Andreas Skov Olsen and Kasper Dolberg. “You cannot expect to push a button and expect to score a lot of goals,” Hjulmand after the France defeat. “We have a lot of good strikers and we were very close.”

The challenge the Socceroos will face is twofold. The first is to break down Denmark’s sound defence. Andreas Christensen, the centre-back who scored against France and practically rugby-tackled Mbappé, is quick and brave while Galatasaray’s Victor Nelsson is fast making a name for himself.

The second is to repeat the brilliant defensive display that ensured a clean sheet against heavy Tunisia pressure – and then step it up a notch given the class of this next opponent. There is also perhaps a third: to cast aside for 90 minutes a genuine appreciation for Eriksen’s calibre and for what he has overcome in the 18 months since having a cardiac arrest on the pitch during Denmark’s European Championship group game against Finland.

Related: How Denmark has helped shape the Socceroos’ World Cup campaign | Michael Huguenin

“He’s such a tremendous player,” the Australia midfielder Keanu Baccus said on Monday. “It was sad, that moment, for everyone involved in football to see that. But it’s great to see him back. He’s obviously at Man United as well and it’s good to see him back playing for his country because he’s a great player.”

Since arriving in Doha, the Socceroos have been vocal about their strength as a collective unit despite their relative lack of experience and well-known faces. Ajdin Hrustic explained it by way of the little-known stick analogy.

“He’s good,” the attacker said of Eriksen. “But one manager at Schalke [youth] once put out 11 sticks. He tied ’em off then put one stick on the right, and he said: ‘Boys, do you realise something?’ No one knew what he was talking about and one of the boys said: ‘There’s 12 sticks out there.’ And he goes: ‘No, there’s 11 sticks which stick as a team. One stick, which is an individual. Eleven sticks will always be stronger than one.’”

Helping the case of those 11 metaphorical sticks is Andrew Clark, Australia’s head of sports science who was recently poached by FC Copenhagen and “loaned back” to the national team for the duration of the World Cup. “Andrew Clark is obviously head of sports science and I actually didn’t think the Danish club would release him for that reason,” the Australia head coach, Graham Arnold, said. “He has a lot of detail on the Danish players.”

Hjulmand was vigilant with his words after the France defeat, careful not to convey overconfidence. “I think we’ve all seen how many people take World Cup results for granted, but a World Cup is something else,” he said.

“It’s all extremely close. There’s nothing you can take for granted. Australia fight with might, driven on by fantastic team spirit. It will be a hard match. It will be a close match.”