It’s not how you start, it’s how you end. At least it is for Denmark, whose tournament started traumatically but is now pursuing a happy ending with skill and determination that can carry them to the end. They will undoubtedly be fierce opponents in Wednesday’s semi-final.
The Czech Republic, on the other hand, are going home lamenting the fact that their improvement in the second half in these quarter-finals was not enough to make up for a capricious first half. Thomas Delaney scored in the fifth minute and Kasper Dolberg did so just before half-time, giving Denmark an advantage that turned out to be insurmountable.
Each team had spoken in preparation to use the example of past feats to propel them to new feats. For the Czechs that meant trying to at least emulate their compatriots who reached the semi-finals of Euro 2004, thanks, as it happened, to a quarter-final victory over Denmark, while the Danes were inspired not only by the recovered Christian Eriksen. , but also in Also of the 92 class of his country, sensational conquerors of the continent.
Denmark coach Kasper Hjulmand was a budding player at the time and has recounted how he turned down tickets to attend the Euro 92 final in order to enjoy a romantic weekend with his then-girlfriend. It must have gone well, since almost 30 years later they are still together. Now, Hjulmand hoped to book a date with England or Ukraine for a chance to reach the second grand final in his country’s history.
Hjulmand said he would have preferred to face the Netherlands than the Czech Republic in the quarter-finals because Jaroslav Silhavy’s were the first opponents in the tournament that he thought could match Denmark’s intensity. He must have been happy he was wrong about that as early as the fifth minute, when Delaney put Denmark in front in a very unexpected way.
Set pieces are supposed to be one of the Czechs’ strengths, but their weak corner defense allowed Denmark to take the lead. Delaney was left alone near the penalty spot to guide a header into the net after the delivery of Jens Stryger Larsen. For a team that had only conceded two goals in the tournament before that, it was a furious way of falling behind.
It was 11 minutes before the Czechs threatened at the other end, with their top scorer, Patrik Schick, jumping from the right to dispatch a shot that went wide. Immediately after that, the Czechs opened up again with alarming ease, as Mikkel Damsgaard ran towards a long ball from the back and threw it past the advancing goalkeeper, but not with enough power to prevent Vladimir Coufal from wandering away. The Czechs were unusually slow and Delaney could have punished them again when he ran unnoticed into the box to meet a cross from the right in the 17th minute. But the midfielder deflected his shot.
Little by little, the Czechs improved, but it took an offside punt from Kasper Schmeichel to give them their next chance, and the keeper made amends by blocking Tomas Holes’ shot. Two minutes later, Tomas Soucek headed wide from a corner, one of several that the Czech Republic forced in the first half. Denmark defended most of them well and looked for opportunities to counterattack. Jan Boril gave them one in the 38th minute when he lost the ball in midfield, but the break ended with Tomas Vaclik taking Damsgaard’s shot away from 15 meters.
Vaclik was helpless a few minutes later when Joakim Mæhle delivered a sumptuous cross from the left with the outside of his right foot. Dolberg came up to speed to deliver the spike that deserved such a high serve, directing a side volley into the net from six yards.
The Czechs had to come up with a new plan at halftime. And boy did they. Michael Krmencik, one of two substitutions introduced for the start of the second half when Silhavy switched to a 4-4-2, fired a shot within seconds of his intro and then helped create an opportunity for Antonin Barak, whose shot from 18 yards he drew a clever save from Schmeichel. The Czechs attacked more vigorously and fluently and soon halved Denmark’s lead. His goal came from a cross from Coufal’s right and was finished off with typical skill from Schick, who guided the ball past Schmeichel from 12 meters for the first time.
That put the striker on a level with Cristiano Ronaldo in this tournament’s scorers table and led the Czechs back into a match that seemed to be passing by. Suddenly Denmark needed to rethink.
Hjulmand made a double change ahead of time to stop the sinister flow. The new duo, Yussuf Poulsen and Christian Nørgaard, reinvigorated the Danish attack. Vaclik twice prevented Poulsen from making it 3-1.
The pace slowed as fatigue took its toll on both teams towards the end. Hopes for the Czech comeback were sunk when Schick grabbed his hamstring. Mæhle was as cheerful as ever and would have been victorious in the 82nd minute had it not been for another save from Vaclik. Never mind, Denmark never seemed to let their advantage slip away.