World Cup 2018: Denmark’s re-defined style sure to offer difficulties to Group C opposition

World Cup 2018: Denmark’s re-defined style sure to offer difficulties to Group C opposition

For many going into Russia 2018, some will struggle, at least initially, to comprehend a World Cup without traditional leading European football nations like Italy and the Netherlands.

Those with such reservations will take consolation from the fact that Denmark, a country amongst this pantheon of established countries, has successfully negotiated their way to the tournament for the first time since 2010.

The halcyon period for the national team was known as “The Danish Dynamite” era, a chapter in the history of the Danish side from Euro 84 to the World Cup of 1986 where the country could enjoy the presence of true footballing mavericks in Michael Laudrup and a certain Preben Elkjaer.

Despite a scintillating group stage performance in Mexico, winning all three games against West Germany, Uruguay and Scotland- scoring nine goals in the process- they crashed out of the tournament in the second round as they were thrashed 5-1 by Spain.

In a more recent 15-year period, Denmark had enjoyed mixed success under former Ajax coach Morten Olsen, with a devout belief of playing possession football according to the adhered Dutch principle.

However, following consecutive failures to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 respectively, Olsen was sacked.

In came new manager Age Hareide, the Norwegian who in his last domestic role had won the Allsvenskan title with Malmo, earning Champions League qualification in the process.

The first half of their World Cup qualifying campaign naturally became somewhat transitional for a developing team under Hareide, who sought to swiftly implement a more direct style onto his team. Indeed, a 4-0 demolition of group-leaders Poland in September caught the attention of many and was indicative of the momentum the Danes were gathering towards the closing quarter of the qualifiers.

Hareide’s men saw out 2017 unbeaten, a run which included a 5-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland in the qualification playoff, inspired by their outstanding playmaker, Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen, who had notched a hat-trick in the rout at the Aviva Stadium.

Not only possessing the gift for a defence-splitting pass, Eriksen is a threatening presence from dead-ball situations with consistent world-class execution. Aside from his technical qualities, his biggest asset is his prolificacy. 11 goals in the qualifying stages was a tally remarkably only bettered by Robert Lewandowski and Cristiano Ronaldo in Europe.

Whilst Eriksen is undoubtedly the heartbeat of the team and whose influence will very much underpin whether Denmark will be able to qualify ahead of group stage opponents including France, Peru and Australia, he is complemented by an altogether well-balanced spine of a side tailored to Hareide’s playing style.

In front of the commanding Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, Brentford’s Andreas Bjelland and Sevilla’s experienced Simon Kjaer form a reliable centre-back pairing with Andrea Christensen a ready-made alternate choice.

Alongside Eriksen in the centre of midfield, Werder Bremen’s Thomas Delaney will be hoping to impress on the world stage this summer to build on his impressive Bundesliga season and to potentially show his worth to high-profile suitors. A natural box-to-box midfielder, he was Denmark’s highest scorer in qualifying after Eriksen with four goals.

Up front, the quality of RB Leipzig’s Yussuf Poulsen and Martin Braithwaite- who recently returned to form during a loan spell at Bordeaux- should mean the Danes need not rely on the seasoned forward Nicklas Bendtner- currently plying his trade at Norwegian club Rosenborg- for a supply of goals.

Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

Italy’s drastic decline confirmed after qualification failure

The floods of tears visibly streaming from Gianluigi Buffon after Italy’s goalless draw with Sweden were not the tears to herald the closing of a momentous career with his national team. They were a demonstration of the sheer desolation and grief that will haunt his nation after a 1-0 aggregate play-off loss to Sweden confirmed Italy’s first World Cup qualification failure since 1958; resulting in the swift, anticipated sacking of manager Gian Piero Ventura.

All that remains for the proud nation, who were crowned the World Champions barely eleven years ago, is to stew over where it all went wrong and to contemplate a fresh era under a new manager.

Many of the issues on the pitch prevalent throughout the qualifying campaign were encapsulated in last Monday’s final encounter against a tough disciplined Sweden at the San Siro.

They had dominated their Scandinavian opponents for the majority of the high-stakes tie, but simply lacked the quality and subtlety in the final third; an outgoing problem for Gian Piero Ventura’s side who had scored just three goals in their last six competitive fixtures.  Endless crosses into a packed penalty area, despite a clear height inferiority to Sweden, was symbolic of the lack of a coherent plan to gain the crucial leveller needed.

Equally concerning scenes were playing out midway through the second half on the bench where the polarisation between coaching staff and players was exposed. Daniele De Rossi was reacting angrily to being asked to warm up by one of Ventura’s coaches, gesticulating towards Lorenzo Insigne in the process, appearing to reply, “Why should I go on? We don’t need a draw, we need a win”. Insigne, who was sitting two places along from De Rossi, looking perplexed at the situation, is currently one of the most sought after wide forwards in Europe, having scored 18 league goals for Napoli last season.

Not only did this incident encapsulate the unhealthy dressing room atmosphere, but it was emblematic of rigid tactics and a lack of flexibility. Italy playing in a 3-5-2 formation, meant there was simply no space for a wide forward.

The 3-5-2 formation was a familiar line-up for the majority of these players, having been used to great effect by Antonio Conte throughout Euro 2016. But this is a side who are bereft of their confidence and identity that they possessed in abundance from two summers ago. They have been drained of the dynamism and shape-shifting synergy they oozed under the now Chelsea manager. Ventura’s Italy lost their fluidity with a desperate disconnect between defence, midfield and attack.

The 69-year old tried to accommodate other formations but all decisions proved poor errors of judgement. 4-2-4 was used away to Spain, but was made to look decidedly naïve by an imperious Spanish side who thrashed Italy 3-0 in Madrid. Even a 3-4-3 line-up could only yield a 1-1 draw in a frustrating encounter with Macedonia in Turin.

What many sectors of Italian media find unforgiveable, is that Ventura had more to work with than Antonio Conte before him.

Despite strikers Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti being in scintillating form for their respective clubs in the Serie A over the last 18 months; the pair have been stale and have appeared lost under Ventura. Jorginho, one of the primary key assets to current Serie A-leading Napoli, was only handed his competitive international debut on Monday night.

Questions will go back to the integrity and sense behind Ventura’s appointment in the first place.

Despite his age, Ventura held a fairly modest CV.  Arguably, the biggest club he has ever coached was Torino, who he took to the last round of 16 in the Europa League in 2016. Appointed on a substantially lower salary than managerial predecessors, this is also a disastrous qualification failure that will be subject to much criticism labelled towards the Italian F.A.

A new manager will be at the helm for the Euro 2020 qualification campaign, and their first major task will be to accommodate a new era for Italian international football; to identify the long-term replacements for the seasoned 2006 World Cup medallists who will no longer be donning the Azzurri shirt. However, this is undoubtedly a national failure of seismic proportions that will painfully linger long in the memory and will not dissipate swiftly with time.