Friday, 30 October 2009

32 For 2010: Denmark

For some reason, it feels like Denmark has been one of the world's best footballing teams since the dawn of time. The truth of the matter is they've only ever reached three World Cups (two of them being as recent as 1998 and 2002) while their first (in 1986) was where they finally achieved any real prominence on the global stage.

The Danes, it's true to say, have only been taken seriously for some 23 years and some would argue they're still struggling to do that. They arrived on the scene at Mexico '86 and burned incandescently after beating Uruguay, West Germany and Scotland. Sadly they burned out altogether pretty quickly when Spain beat them 5-1 in the Second Round, but by then they'd well and truly made their mark.

An appearance at Euro 88 seemed to confirm their foothold amongst the game's elite, but their failure to win any matches sent them into a brief tailspin until the improbable victory that was Euro 92. Finishing second in their qualifying group, they prepared to sit out the Finals in Sweden but were given an unlikely golden ticket due to the war going on in Yugoslavia. Having sailed across to join their Scandinavian neighbours, they overcame a shaky start to win the competition outright against all the odds.

Yet that was to be about all in the name of significant achievements until they reached the World Cup again in 1998 where the quarter-final stage was reached. Since then, they've been there or thereabouts where the major competitions are concerned without ever achieving very much. So should we expect anything different in South Africa next year?

If their qualifying campaign is anything to go by, perhaps yes. While not being in the most difficult group, they still showed great efficiency and consistency in overcoming difficult opposition in the form of Sweden and Portugal. After an opening draw against Hungary (who strangely beat them in the closing match 1-0 as well), the Danes scored three goals in their next four matches. Though their average dropped to one per game for the next three matches (including double 1-0's over Sweden), they remained the team to beat in Group 1 finishing two points clear of Portugal.

They also boast the qualifying tournament's leading goalscorer in Søren Larsen, the Duisberg striker who bagged five goals along the way. It's probably doing him an injustice to mention that he scored two goals against Malta both home and away along with one against Albania, but they all count and he might just prove to be the unknown quantity in an interesting Danish squad.

For a further source of goals, look no further than Arsenal's Nicklas Bendtner. The Gunners' number 52 has recently had his name on the scoresheet against Liverpool and Blackburn domestically and also picked up a goal in both of Denmark's qualifiers against Portugal.

At the back, the Danes can also rely upon Stoke City's ever-improving goalkeeper Thomas Sørensen. Though recognised as a 'keeper prone to the occasional gaff (as Rio Ferdinand's headed goal in the last World Cup proved) this last season-and-a-bit has seen Sørensen step up a gear in reliability terms with some great performances helping him to become a fans' favourite at the Britannia Stadium.

Denmark's other key man, though, is Morten Olsen. Taking over as national team coach from Bo Johansson in 2000, Olsen initially did well to guide The Danes to the 2002 World Cup and Euro 2004, but failure to reach the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 placed a seed of doubt in the minds of many fans. Reaching World Cup 2010 will not only come as some relief for the former Anderlecht and FC Koln defender but also act as a fitting swansong as Olsen is set to quit his post after next year's finals.

So to return to the earlier question, what can we expect of Denmark when they reach South Africa? Well if there's one thing that does look likely, it's that they'll get to the knockout stages – especially if their First Round draw isn't too severe. Once there, however, it's debatable whether Denmark have a squad strong enough to progress much further.

For many people, Denmark's high point came in 1986 when Preben Elkjaer Larsen, Michael Laudrup and Jesper Olsen played the kind of Total Football that made the Dutch team legends of the 1970's. Many would settle for the merest glimmer of that next year, but getting beyond Round One is likely to be the first and only realistic ambition for Denmark's hopeful fans.

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