Denmark coach braced for Dutch play-off test
Denmark face the Netherlands in the European play-offs
Coach Lars Sondergaard took charge of the team in January
The first leg in the Dutch city of Breda sold out within 50 minutes
As the final whistle blew to seal Denmark’s 1-0 defeat by Sweden in their final FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ qualifier, the disappointment among the players was clear to see. The Danes were forced to settle for second place after finishing five points behind their Swedish rivals.
"We thought we really had a good chance to win the game, but we didn’t play very well," said Denmark coach Lars Sondergaard after a loss that meant his side would not qualify directly for France 2019. "We knew that you have to be at 100 per cent against a team like Sweden – and we weren’t. You could say that this was the disappointing thing about it, but as time went by the mood improved."
Yet their dream of a ticket to the Women's World Cup is not over and can still be realised via the play-offs, where their semi-final opponents are the Netherlands - a team they met, and lost too, in the 2017 UEFA Women's EURO final.
"We know where we stand now," said Sondergaard in an interview with FIFA.com. "At the start of the year – after the 3-0 loss to Sweden [Editor's note: the result that was awarded after the match was not played], we knew that it would be hard to qualify directly. Then suddenly we had a chance just by winning the reverse fixture. Nevertheless, we always knew that this would be a very difficult route – these play-offs are tough."
The tie represents a significant challenge for the 59-year-old, who only succeeded Nils Nielsen as national team coach in January 2018 after various stints in charge of sides in his homeland of Denmark and Austria as well as RB Salzburg’s academy. "Women’s football has been extremely popular in the last couple of years, especially in the past year with the second-place finish at the EURO," explained the man who spent his entire playing career as a midfielder for Aalborg. "Even though I had only coached men’s teams, it was very interesting to get the chance to coach a national team.
"It has always been a dream of mine to coach a national team," Sondergaard continued. "I never thought about the women’s side, I must admit. When the chance and possibility came up, I talked to the federation and there was no doubt that I needed to take it."
The upcoming play-off against the reigning European champions now gives him a chance to make another dream come true: qualify Denmark for their fifth Women’s World Cup after previous campaigns in 1991, 1995, 1999 and 2007.
"My assistant coaches and I have been concentrating a lot on the Netherlands in the last couple of weeks since we found out who we would be playing against," Sondergaard said. "The Dutch are not an unknown quantity. Unlike me, most of the staff were there at the final of the EURO last year. We have been preparing for the games and, of course, watching our players in Denmark and other countries to ensure we select the right team."
Much of the focus is once again on one particular player who will do everything in her power to lead the Danes to success. "In our team we have some stand-out individuals, especially Pernille Harder, of course," he said. "She is one of the best, if not the best player in Europe." The 2018 European Player of the Year could certainly make the difference in the play-offs.
"Although we have to play well collectively, Pernille is undoubtedly a major factor," Sondergaard continued. "Our opponents are always looking carefully to see where she is. It isn’t going to be easy for her. But this could also create a little bit of space for some of our other players such as Nadia Nadim. If she can get a little more space, she can also be an important factor in those two games."
The matches will be played on 5 and 9 October
The Netherlands beat Denmark twice at UEFA Women's EURO 2017, including 4-2 in the final
The Dutch have recorded a total of seven wins in a row against the Danes, most recently at the 2018 Algarve Cup
Denmark missed out on a Women’s World Cup place via the play-offs in 2003 and 2011, having last qualified directly in 2007
The Netherlands qualified for their first Women’s World Cup via the play-offs in 2015