Have Denmark finally found a new hero? This question tends to spring to mind whenever Christian Eriksen is on the pitch. The 20-year-old is a rising star for club and country, and seems poised to emerge from the giant shadow cast by the great Michael Laudrup when UEFA EURO 2012 comes around in a few months' time.
The Ajax midfielder is the kind of player who can stamp his authority on a game in the way only a genuine No10 really can. He boasts excellent close control as well as speed and a beautiful touch, combined with a powerful shot and an eye for the right pass every time.
Pundits are quick to extol his virtues whenever he drops his shoulder and sets off on a run, and when it comes to comparing him to another player, one name crops up every time: Michael Laudrup. "Obviously it's a great honour for me to be compared with Michael Laudrup, but there really is no comparison," explained Eriksen, who already has 21 senior caps to his name, in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
"My ambition is that someday, people start talking about the new Christian Eriksen as opposed to the new Michael Laudrup. I want to make a name for myself and make sure that my performances out on the pitch are enough for people sit up and take notice."* Exceptional talent, enormous potential*
Eriksen already stood out as a youth player on the back of his exceptional talent on the ball. In 2008, the Dane was voted his country's U17 Player of the Year, and the youngster soon established himself amongst the big boys, making the No8 jersey at Ajax - whom he joined in October that year - his own.
And as his upward progression continued the awards kept flowing, with Eriksen chosen as both Dutch Talent of the Year and Danish Player of the Year in 2011. "Awards such as 'Talent of the Year' just make me even more motivated and they are a real honour for me," says Eriksen with pride. "I personally wasn't expecting them and they came as a wonderful surprise. I'd like to thank the people who voted for me."
These honours, coupled with the six goals and 16 assists that he has garnered in 28 Eredivisie matches this season, have made plenty of big European clubs sit up and take notice. "I think that I'm still developing here at Ajax and that the regular playing time that I am getting is making me better and better," said the modest midfielder. "I don't see the need for a move at the moment. I feel very much at home here and there is plenty I can still learn."
I have a pivotal role as No10, and I obviously also have to be a leader as well. But I'm a young player and I'm still trying to improve things in terms of the image I project and my leadership qualities.
His former coach Martin Jol thinks that, given a few years, Eriksen can be one of the best in the business, with the current Fulham manager going so far as to say that the youngster is already on a par with the likes of Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. And this exciting young Dane should have the chance to test himself against those very players at EURO 2012.
"We're in the toughest, tightest group in my opinion, but I hope that we can get through to the quarter-finals along with Germany," said Eriksen, on a section which also contains the Netherlands and Portugal.
"The way our group pans out will have a decisive impact on who ends up winning the tournament. The team that wins our group can win the EURO," he added, no doubt hoping for a repeat of the Danish Dynamite's legendary campaign at EURO 1992, when they won the title after coming in as late replacements for the former Yugoslavia.
In Poland and Ukraine this summer, Eriksen will doubtless play a more prominent role than he did at the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. "When I went to South Africa, I was outside the top 20 in a 23-man squad," he explained. "I was just happy to be there. Now I have a decent chance of seeing a lot of playing time, and that's obviously a real sign of progress."
One player alone cannot win the title, of course, as even the supremely talented Eriksen realises: "For Denmark, we obviously need to rely far more on how we play as a team as opposed to individual class." Eriksen himself is the consummate team player, and attracts far more attention by setting goals up as opposed to scoring them. "It makes absolutely no difference to me whether I score a goal or set one up. What counts is the ball ending up in the back of the net."
* Germany and Spain the favourites*
The affable Scandinavian knows how important his position is to the team, while admitting to room for improvement in terms of his on-the-pitch leadership skills. "I have a pivotal role as No10, and I obviously also have to be a leader as well," he told FIFA.com. "But I'm a young player and I'm still trying to improve things in terms of the image I project and my leadership qualities. I've got a lot to learn as I try to grow into the role of being a team leader."
The formation the Denmark team have adopted is very similar to the one that prevails in Dutch football, which suits Eriksen down to the ground and allows him to express himself fully. "We play an attacking 4-3-3 formation that's all about possession," the two-footed attacking midfielder said. "I really feel comfortable with it since it gives me a lot of room and lets me be as creative as I want. That's a very important part of my football, and it's what I like best about the game."
Eriksen also knows that Denmark have some way to go if they want to catch up with the continent's very top teams. "Germany and Spain are the real favourites in my opinion, they are incredibly strong in attack and have some genuine individual talents. They are capable of creating any number of clear goalscoring opportunities every match," he said as the interview came to a close. "But what makes them really strong is that they play as a team."