It is not how you start, it is how you finish. At least it is for Denmark, whose tournament began traumatically but who are now pursuing a happy ending with a skill and resolve that may just take them all the way. They will certainly be fierce adversaries in Wednesday’s semi-final.
The Czech Republic, on the other hand, go home lamenting the fact that their second-half improvement in this quarter-final was not enough to offset a wayward first half. Thomas Delaney scored after five minutes and Kasper Dolberg struck just before the interval, giving Denmark a lead that proved to be insurmountable.
Each team had spoken in the buildup of using the example of past feats to drive them on to new exploits. For the Czechs that meant trying at least to emulate their compatriots who reached the semi-finals of Euro 2004 – thanks, as it happened, to a quarter-final victory over Denmark – whereas the Danes took inspiration not just from the recovering Christian Eriksen but also from their country’s class of 92, sensational conquerors of the continent.
The Denmark manager, Kasper Hjulmand, was a budding player back then and has told of how he turned down tickets to attend the Euro 92 final so that he could enjoy a romantic weekend away with his then girlfriend. It must have gone well, since nearly 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 major final in his country’s history.
Hjulmand said he would rather have faced the Netherlands than the Czech Republic in the quarter-final because Jaroslav Silhavy’s side were the first opponents in the tournament whom he thought could match Denmark’s intensity. He must have been happy to be proved 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 a particuar strength of the Czechs but their feeble defending at a corner enabled Denmark to take the lead. Delaney was left alone near the penalty spot to guide a downward header into the net following Jens Stryger Larsen’s outswinging delivery. For a team that had only conceded two goals in the tournament prior to that, it was an enraging way to fall behind.
It was 11 minute before the Czechs threatened at the other end, with their top scorer, Patrik Schick, jinking in from the right to dispatch a shot that was deflected wide. Immediately after that the Czechs were opened up again with alarming ease, as Mikkel Damsgaard ran on to a long ball from the back and flipped it past the advancing goalkeeper, but not with enough to power to prevent the backtracking Vladimir Coufal from clearing. The Czechs were unusually sluggish and Delaney could have punished them again when he ran unnoticed into the box to meet a cross from the right in 17th minute. But the midfielder scuffed his shot wide.
Slowly the Czechs improved but it took a misplaced clearance by 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 batting away Damsgaard’s shot from 15 yards.
Vaclik was helpless a few minutes later when Joakim Mæhle supplied a sumptuous cross from the left with the outside of his right foot. Dolberg arrived at speed to apply the finish that the such high-class service deserved, steering a sidefooted volley into the net from six yards.
The Czechs had to come up with a new plan at half-time. And boy, did they do so. Michael Krmencik, one of two substitutions introduced for the start of the second half as Silhavy shifted to a 4-4-2, fired off a shot within seconds of his introduction and then helped to create a chance for Antonin Barak, whose shot from 18 yards drew a smart save from Schmeichel. The Czechs attacked with more vigour and fluency and soon they halved Denmark’s lead. Their goal came from a cross from the right by Coufal and was finished with typical expertise by Schick, who guided the ball first time past Schmeichel from 12 yards.
That drew the striker level with Cristiano Ronaldo in this tournament’s scoring charts and brought the Czechs right back into a contest that had seemed to be passing them by. Suddenly Denmark needed to rethink.
Hjulmand made a double change of his own before the hour to stem the ominous flow. The new duo, Yussuf Poulsen and Christian Nørgaard, reinvigorated the Danish attack. Vaclik twice stopped Poulsen from making it 3-1.
The pace dropped as tiredness took its toll on both teams towards the end. Czech comeback hopes sagged when Schick went off clutching his hamstring. Mæhle remained as perky as ever and would have wrapped up victory in the 82nd minute if not for another save by Vaclik. No matter, Denmark never really looked like letting their lead slip.