DENMARK couldn’t, could they? At this stage of the competition, anything is possible and a successful end to a remarkable summer is now within touching distance.
You don’t have to tell Kasper Hjulmand and his players that dreams can come true. A team that has become the adopted nation of so many now stands just 90 minutes away from giving their country a shot at glory.
Victory over the Czech Republic has secured a place in the semi-finals for Denmark. They will be the underdogs, they will be unfancied, but a side that has overcome the odds at every stage this summer will believe that they can go all the way almost three decades after their most famous triumph.
When the story of this tournament is told in years to come, the scenes in Copenhagen will permeate the tale. From the distressing viewing as Christian Eriksen fought for his life to the inspiring way in which his team-mates rallied, from the despair of defeat to the elation of victory, the Danish capital has hosted some of the most emotional moments of the summer.
It was a shame, then, that this match was played in the soulless surrounds of the Baku Olympic Stadium. This Danish team, and this match, deserved a far grander stage than this one.
Those that cheered on Hjulmand’s side were there in greater numbers than their Czech compatriots, but they were still measured in the several hundreds rather than several thousands as a sea of empty was the backdrop to a competitive encounter.
It was one that Denmark deservedly won. When they head to Wembley for their semi-final next week, the stadium and atmosphere will at least be befitting a team that many have taken to their hearts.
The main reason for that, of course, is admirable spirit that they have shown throughout this tournament, both in adversity and celebration. Yet there has to be a recognition of their talents individually and collectively and it was Hjulmand’s side that had the quality in the moments that mattered most.
The lead was theirs inside five minutes. As Thomas Delaney stood still awaiting a Jens Stryger corner, Tomas Kalas and Jan Boril both walked away from the man who would make the most of the time and space afforded to him.
The header – nodded down into the ground – was well placed and Tomas Vaclik was helpless as Denmark took a lead that they would eventually double just minutes before the interval.
Both sides had created chances in the intervening period, but it was Denmark who got the crucial second goal of the evening. When they did so, their dream was close to becoming a reality.
The finish from Kasper Dolberg at the back post was emphatic, but it was overshadowed by the assist as Joakim Mæhle picked him out with a wonderful cross.
The full-back advanced down the left and, with the outside of his more natural right foot, he curled in a ball that evaded the Czech defence, as well as Martin Braithwaite, and dropped perfectly for Dolberg to score for the third time in the tournament.
The introductions of Michael Krmenčík and Jakub Jankto were a recognition from manager Jaroslav Šilhavý that the Czechs had to find a goal, and do it quickly.
They did just that. Three minutes into the second period, Patrik Schick took his tally to five with a cushioned finish from a Vladimír Coufal cross. It wasn’t his most spectacular strike of the summer, but it was a hugely important one and further affirmation of a talent that will be more widely acclaimed now.
The strike from Schick gave the Czechs a belief and could have turned the momentum in their favour. In the face of adversity, Denmark stood tall.
The pressure wasn’t constant, however, and a chance for substitute Yussuf Poulsen was spurned as Vaclik saved well after the striker burst clear following a Braithwaite lay-off.
Schick’s threat was clear, but it was Tomas Soucek – his head bandaged after he was caught by the studs of Poulsen as he made a terrific challenge in the area – who was the driving force for the Czechs.
Their openings were not exactly clear but they were very much still in the tie even as the clock ticked down. Eventually, time would run out.
The tears from the Czechs will not be shared beyond their own border. The emotions of their conquerors will resonate far and wide.