The game’s not over until the final whistle, as coaches are fond of reminding their players. Like all good clichés, this one is grounded in fact, as teams who choose to ignore it frequently find to their cost. By contrast, the taste of last-minute success is even sweeter for teams who keep going until the bitter end.
The Denmark fans who made their way to Portugal for the most recent round of 2010 FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers were put through an extreme emotional roller-coaster by their team. The hosts led in Lisbon thanks to a 42nd-minute Nani strike, but Nicklas Bendtner levelled with just six minutes remaining. Deco restored Portugal’s lead from the spot just 120 seconds later, but Danish despair turned to delight as Christian Poulsen and Daniel Jensen struck last-gasp goals to complete an extraordinary turnaround.
All eyes on young guns
In qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ in South Africa, Denmark now lie second in European Group 1 on four points, the same total as leaders Albania and third-placed Sweden. After the disappointment of missing out on the 2006 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2008, the Danes appears to have recaptured their explosive force.
Two starlets form the vanguard for the resurgent 1992 European champions, 24-year-old Liverpool defender Daniel Agger, and Arsenal striker Bendtner, four years his junior. The pair, first elevated to the senior squad shortly before the start of qualifying, made valuable contributions to the Danes’ win and draw from their opening matches, Bendtner firing his maiden international goal against Portugal.
Taken together with the likes of old hands Christian Poulsen (Juventus), Dennis Rommedahl (Ajax) and Daniel Jensen (Werder Bremen), coach Morten Olsen has a decent choice of players who ply their trade in Europe’s best leagues.
The current generation is desperate to emulate the celebrated class of ‘92, when a side built round Peter Schmeichel, Brian Laudrup and Flemming Poulsen beat Germany to win the UEFA European Championship final. The Danes have previously made the Mexico 1986, France 1998 and Japan/Korea 2002 FIFA World Cup finals, never failing to progress from the group stage.
"Denmark is a small country, where we keep producing good players, but also have spells with only average players," Danish legend Michael Laudrup warned when he spoke to FIFA.com. "At the moment the national team features a number of talented lads who need a little more time to mature. We have to be patient, or we could harm the development process."
"They’re in a difficult position at the moment. Our fans became used to seeing us compete at major international tournaments, but we suddenly failed to qualify for the last two big events. It was a heavy blow, but despite it all, I think we have to remain realistic," Laudrup argued.
Portugal, Sweden, Hungary, Albania and Malta provide the opposition in a tough group for the Danes, although coach Olsen came out fighting in the aftermath of the draw back in November 2007: "I think it’s definitely between Portugal, Sweden and Denmark for the top two places. We have a rich footballing tradition and we rise above ourselves against quality opposition. The important thing will be to have all our players available for the crunch matches. I don’t think we’re far behind Sweden. We lost out in the decisive encounter for a place at EURO 2008, so this is a chance to take revenge."
Since then, Denmark have made a promising start to their qualifying campaign and now face Malta, who scored no goals and conceded seven in losing both their opening fixtures.
The Danes' hopes of sealing a trip to South Africa probably rest on next year’s meetings with Portugal and Sweden, although nothing can be taken for granted at this early stage. As Olsen himself warned at the draw: "Let’s wait and see what happens."* FIFA World Cup Fantasy and Predictor* *
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