Denmark roar past Russia to set up Euro 2020 last-16 clash with Wales

Few teams have ever deserved to make progress as much as Denmark did on a thrilling night in Copenhagen. Players who, just nine days ago, were traumatised to see Christian Eriksen suffer cardiac arrest in the middle of their first match produced a momentous performance on the same pitch, emerging as glorious victors over Russia to set up a last 16 showdown with Wales.

Mikkel Damsgaard and Yusuf Poulsen ignited celebrations before Artem Dzyuba put them on pause by converting a penalty and news filtered through that the group’s other match, between Belgium and Finland, was not going the way the Danes needed. But that changed as Group B reached a dramatic climax and Denmark confirmed second spot thanks to magnificent goals by Andreas Christensen and Joakim Mæhle.

Before the match Danish supporters had made it clear that their team had already made their country proud by showing such sense and solidarity after Eriksen’s collapse in their first match. An enormous red shirt laid by fans on the park beside the national stadium in Copenhagen bore a single word: Helte, meaning “Heroes”. Terrific. But the players are also ferocious competitors and they were determined to seize the chance they still had to prolong their tournament despite losing their first two matches.

But Russia frustrated them at first, defending well, tackling diligently, blocking crosses and tracking runners from midfield. Denmark made regular gains down the flanks but could not infiltrate a well guarded box. The Russians threatened to puncture local fervour in the 17th minute when Alexsandr Golovin pounced on a loose ball in midfield and skedaddled past two Danes on his way into the area. He had the whole goal to aim at but drilled a low shot at Kasper Schmeichel, who made the save.

Denmark enjoyed an even bigger let-off four minutes later when Russia launched another break from midfield only for Roman Zobnin to botch a straightforward pass when attackers outnumbered defenders.

Those raids jolted the Danes. But a crude foul by Fyodor Kudryashov on Daniel Wass focused their minds anew, as well as earning the veteran a booking. Kudryashov redeemed himself moments later by making a perfectly timed tackle in the box to curtail a run by Damsgaard. But no one was likely to stop a thunderous long-range shot by Pierre-Emile Højbjerg on the half hour. Russia exhaled when it flew inches wide. Soon they were beaten in breathtaking style by Damsgaard.

The artful 20-year-old nipped into space to collect a pass in front of the Russian defence and then, from just outside the D, he curled the ball between two centre-backs and into the corner of the net, beyond Matvei Safonov, the goalkeeper too bewildered to dive.

With Russia suddenly reeling, Damsgaard tried to land another blow, slipping a pass through to Poulsen, whose shot on the run drifted wide.

Russia, needing at least to draw, started the second half with more attacking intent. With Golovin’s elusive runs and Dzyuba’s tendency to play like a man reared in a moshpit, they carried plenty of menace. But Daler Kuzyaev accidentally shot his own team in the foot in the 59th minute when his blind backpass wrongfooted his goalkeeper, Safonov, and turned into an ideal through-ball to Poulsen. The forward stroked the ball into the empty net to trigger wild celebrations all around the stadium.

The atmosphere grew even more giddy a few minutes later when news came through that Belgium had taken the lead against Finland. But the twists were far from finished. The Belgian goal was ruled out after a VAR check and then, back in Copenhagen, Russia were awarded a penalty when Jannik Vestergaard was judged to have dragged Aleksandr Sobolev to the ground. Dzyuba calmly converted from the spot.

After that, the most thrilling mayhem. The crowd roared news of a Belgian goal that stood. Then Denmark battered at the Russian door, Safonov turning them away with several excellent saves before Christensen thrashed in an irresistible shot from over 20 yards.

Then Mæhle made it 4-1 with a smart finish after dancing through the Russian defence. At the final whistle, scenes of joy that seemed unimaginable in this stadium nine days ago.

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