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EURO 2020

Denmark’s fairytale run at Euro 2020 continues thanks to new characters Dolberg, Stryger

Hailing from the country of fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen, this group of Denmark players are writing their own epic story this summer.

The Danish contingent are not letting their remarkable Euro 2020 journey end anytime soon. Their 4-0 knockout victory against Wales on Saturday saw yet another unlikely hero write another chapter in this ever-growing and incredible tale of Kasper Hjulmand’s side.

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It was at the 2016 edition of the tournament where Wales were the neutral’s favourites as they reached the semifinals in France. But five years on, their story finishes at the round of 16 and its the Danes who have taken up that leading role.

Following the collapse of Christian Eriksen in the opening match against Finland, Denmark’s campaign has been a rollercoaster of trauma, emotion, resilience, leadership and class. There was further drama and disruption ahead of this match against Wales, as the pre-match team news seeped through that two of their main protagonists were absent: Yussuf Poulsen out with a thigh injury, and Daniel Wass battling an illness.

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So manager Hjulmand looked within the squad, trusted their collective strength. Kasper Dolberg and Jens Stryger Larsen stepped up with Dolberg scoring two of their four goals, and Stryger impressing on the right. Their performances were testament to the bond this group have, and the trust in one another.

Hjulmand was never meant to lead Denmark into these Euros. That was meant to be the responsibility of Age Hareide with Hjulmand lined up to replace him at tournament’s end. But then came the year’s delay and Hjulmand took on the hot seat for this incredibly tough tournament.

But he’s stayed calm. His quiet and effective leadership has empathy and understanding run through its very core. He’s managed to keep the Denmark ship on track and afloat, despite everything that’s been thrown at them. And he’s used the width and breadth of his squad. We’ve seen various protagonists step up and grasp the narrative at different stages in these Euros. It’s been a true team effort.

Two weeks ago on Saturday, Denmark were coping with the trauma of seeing Eriksen — their teammate, friend and best player — suffer his cardiac arrest on their home turf of Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. They somehow managed to get through the match against Finland that evening, with Kasper Schmeichel and Simon Kjaer’s leadership shining through. Thomas Delaney and Poulsen helped form the protective human ring around Eriksen as he received his treatment on the ground. They’d lose 1-0 but remained united — and wrote the first chapter in their story.

The plot more took twists and turns as Denmark had to re-group against Belgium. Despite the 2-1 loss to the Red Devils, Poulsen led from the front and scored a brilliant opening goal, while Wass was superb down the right. Then, they managed to get their key 4-1 win against Russia, highlighted by the magnificant goal of Mikkel Damsgaard — the young 20-year-old who had the unenviable task of stepping into the void left by Eriksen.

Come Wales — their first match away from Copenhagen — yet they had the backing at Johan Cruyff Arena, with Denmark’s fans comfortably outnumbering the opposing contingent, COVID-19 travel restrictions for Welsh fans at the Dutch border.

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But even then, the build-up to this match was unpredictable. Poulsen and Wass had been two of their dependable lieutenants, but in came Dolberg and Stryger and neither missed a beat.

Dolberg has had a rough year, having had COVID-19 twice and had his appendix removed, but he filled the sizeable void left by Poulsen to score their two goals. Back on his old patch at Ajax (he left the Dutch giants for Nice in 2019), he had a remarkable run as he scored a magnificent first in the 27th minute. Damsgaard created the space, turned back on Wales’ defence and fed Dolberg who curled home from 25 yards out.

For the Dolberg’s second at the start of the second-half, he pounced on a Neco Williams error to tuck the ball home from close-range. The goal stood despite Wales’ protestations at Kjaer’s tackle on Moore earlier in the move.

Gareth Bale had a frustrating evening thanks to the work of Stryger, who started at right wing-back. The Udinese man cancelled out Daniel James and Bale, and also caused his own bunch of mischief with some deadly crosses into the Welsh box.

Wales started this match brightly with Bale popping up with two shots early on, but after 15 or so minutes, Hjulmand moved from 3-4-3 to 4-3-3, shifting Christensen into the middle of midfield. This helped quash this early Welsh optimism, while Kjaer and Jannik Vestergaard managed to nullify the aerial threat of Kieffer Moore. And then as the match drifted away from Wales and their frustration grew, Hjulmand judged his substitutions perfectly and used Andreas Cornelius to create further havoc up front as Wales were worn down and the outstanding Maehle, who played down the left and right- scored their hammer blow third.

Wales’ awful day was compounded by Harry Wilson’s late red card — which looked very harsh, for what was a lazy tackle on Hojbjerg — and Martin Braithwaite’s late fourth, originally ruled out for offside, but overturned by VAR as he was played onside by the foot of Chris Mepham.

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Wales will now head back home having impressed in the group stage but were comfortably beaten in the round of 16, suffering their heaviest ever defeat in a Euro finals match. Bale is still to reveal what his next step is, having dodged questions over potential retirement throughout this tournament.

But Denmark’s journey continues. Prior to the match, Denmark received a good luck video from their title-winning Euro ’92 heroes. No one fancied that team to win the tournament, but they triumphed against the odds and the likes of Peter Schmeichel, John Jensen, Martin Olsen and the Laudrup brothers were written into Danish folklore.

This group in 2021 is writing its own remarkable fairy-tale, and it’s thanks to every member of the squad stepping up. They’re in no mood to write the final chapter on this tale anytime soon.

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