KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Players of Denmark and Belgium halted their Euro 2020 tie after 10 minutes in Copenhagen in tribute to their absent friend – Danish captain Christian Eriksen who remains in hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest at the weekend.
His team-mates did their level best to provide a performance to honour the moment but, after a high-speed first half, their storm blew itself out in the second half as Belgium covered from a poor start to win 2-1 and secure a place in the round of 16 with a game to spare.
Eriksen had sent messages of reassurances to his team-mates and thanks to worried fans around the world after collapsing shortly before half-time in Denmark’s Group B tie against Finland in Copenhagen.
By prior agreement with UEFA and Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers, the players put the ball out of play in minute No10 – Eriksen’s shirt number – and led a one-minute round of applause in which fans and officials joined.
Then, as Eriksen himself would have wished, it was back to the football business at hand.
Denmark had already taken the lead after only one minute 39 seconds, the second-fastest goal in Euro finals history.
A sloppy clearance out of the centre of defence by Belgian centre-back Jason Denayer was seized on by Yusuf Poulsen who shot low beyond the right hand of keeper Thibaut Courtois.
The Danes continued to pour forward both sides of the Eriksen tribute and were unlucky not to score more against the shaky Belgians – looking nothing like a team officially ranked No1 in the world.
Courtois saved twice within one early minute from Daniel Wass, Martin Braithwaite glanced a header narrowly wide and was off target with another effort while Mikkel Damsgaard went close after a mistake by veteran defender Toby Alderweireld.
Belgium were fortunate still to be in the match at half-time when coach Roberto Martinez sent on Kevin de Bruyne to try to turn it all around.
The Manchester City midfielder did just that, combining brilliantly with the hitherto-anonymous Romelu Lukaku to set up a close-range, 55th-minute equaliser for Thorgan Hazard.
Belgium then brought Eden Hazard into the action as well and in the 70th minute he and his brother and the resurgent Lukaku set up De Bruyne to thunder home a second goal from 20 metres.
Suddenly Denmark’s Euro campaign was falling apart. Braithwaite sought a one-man solution but first he saw a shot deflected over the Belgian crossbar for a corner and then a header clipped the top of the woodwork.
Belgium progressed while the Danes, beaten in that opening tie by Finland, must beat Russia on Monday to have any hope of qualifying themselves.
Roberto Martínez, Belgium coach: “It’s been a while since we’ve last been put to the test like this. In the first half, the players seemed shell shocked but they have the experience to turn a game around.”
Jan Vertonghen, Belgium defender: “The Danes surprised us with the system they played in and in the first half we were unrecognisable. We were always one step behind, it seemed. But then De Bruyne, Witsel and Eden Hazard came on, which just changed the game. They bring extra quality; we don’t have to tiptoe around that.”
Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark coach: “We’ve felt an enormous backing from the people, from all the people following us, this whole stadium and all the people we’ve met and felt the love from – that’s what did it in the end. And also that this group is extremely good together. We can take a lot with us from this match. Now we’ll close this one. I’m already thinking about the Russians. We are not finished in this tournament.”
Thomas Delaney, Denmark midfielder: “We accepted that it’s hard for us to be here again and sing the national anthem. We went into our circle before the match and pushed some buttons and said, ‘Now are we going to give all we have.’ We’ve prepared well and waited for this for years. That makes me extremely proud.”
Denmark: Schmeichel – Christensen, Kjær, Vestergaard (Olsen 84), Mæhle – Wass (Stryger 61), Højbjerg, Delaney (Jensen 72) – Poulsen (Norgaard 61), Damsgaard (Cornelius 72), Braithwaite.
Belgium: Courtois – Alderweireld, Denayer, Vertonghen – Meunier, Tielemans, Dendoncker (Witsel 59), T Hazard (Vermaelen 90+4)- Mertens (De Bruyne 46), Lukaku, Carrasco (E Hazard 59).
Referee: B Kuipers (Net).