Wembley Stadium on Wednesday was one step too far for Denmark. From that awful moment when Christian Eriksen collapsed, through two group defeats, a battering of Russia and Wales and Joakim Maehle’s magic against the Czech Republic, Kasper Hjulmand’s men have captivated fans at Euro 2020 more than any other side.
Against England, the brutal truth of football took over. Denmark were good, but just not good enough. The standout individual performances, the critical moments, the game management – they belonged to the Three Lions.
Fans should commiserate, of course, but they should celebrate, too, for what their team have produced in these past few weeks.
England had been the most resolute of all sides at these finals. Five games, five clean sheets – their best return at a major tournament. They had not let in a goal since March. Midway through the first half against Denmark, Jordan Pickford broke Gordon Banks’ record of 720 minutes without conceding.
It was likely to take something special to break that run. Barely 60 seconds later, it duly arrived.
Mikkel Damsgaard, 21 years old, unleashed a sensational, dipping free-kick from more than 30 yards out that flew past Pickford’s despairing grasp. It was the first direct free-kick scored at these finals and the eighth direct goal involvement the Sampdoria man – who is sure to attract interest from across the continent – had managed in seven starts for his country.
Damsgaard served up a moment worthy of the stage, of the exceptional tournament Hjulmand’s men have had.
It was unfortunate then to concede an equaliser via captain Simon Kjaer, his desperate lunge to stop Raheem Sterling scoring a tap-in only sending the ball into the unguarded net. Perhaps Schmeichel could have done more to cut out Bukayo Saka’s cross, though Sterling would have scored a minute earlier but for a mighty block from the Leicester City goalkeeper.
Schmeichel has enjoyed trips to Wembley this year. On May 15, Leicester lifted the FA Cup thanks to two moments of stupendous quality against Chelsea: Youri Tielemans’ goal, and Schmeichel’s fingertip save from Mason Mount. He repeated the trick here, flying to his right to claw away a Harry Maguire header and stopping Kane’s goalbound low strike on the stretch in the second half
You began to sense that, if penalties came, Schmeichel might prove the hero. When he finally faced one, he did indeed keep it out – but the rebound fell at Kane’s feet for the easiest Wembley goal he will ever score. He still made a last-second save to deny Sterling at the end of extra time, as if to remind us of his real quality.
There is never a good way to lose a semi-final, but this 2-1 loss felt cruel on Denmark. England deserved to win the match, that’s certainly true, but Schmeichel did not deserve to lose. Captain Kjaer, a hero in the truest sense when Eriksen’s life was in danger, should never have been the man to score an own goal in his country’s biggest game in 29 years.
When it comes to results, elite football can be a harsh place. But events like these are also about the journey, and Denmark’s at these finals has been one to remember.