After my debut article for Twelve where I explained why Croatia can no longer be considered a darkhorse at the World Cup, I am now looking towards the Vatreni’s decisive match of the tournament against Denmark in which we’ll see a great battle for the quarter-finals spot.
Croatia were one of just three sides to claim maximum points from the group phase, while their opponent did just about enough to finish second in Group C. All three group matches gave Zlatko Dalic a chance to show a different style of play. Against Nigeria they’ve shown a sheer routine with a 2-0 win in their opener, before they trashed Argentina with a stunning 3-0 win in their second game. Croatia then battled to a 2-1 triumph over Iceland with a mixed squad in their closing match of Group D.
The second-half showing against Argentina awoke Croatia’s dreams of replicating their success from two decades ago when they recorded their best-ever finish at the World Cup, but their 3-0 win over Germany in the quarter-finals of France 98 remains their last knockout-stage win at a major tournament.
In the meantime, Denmark crawled through Group C in second place behind France. They saw off Peru with 1-0 win in their opener before grinding out a 1-1 draw with Australia in matchday two.
Aga Hareide’s side left behind Australia and Peru in third and fourth spot respectively, after a controversial 0-0 draw against France in their last match in group-phase. Knowing that a goalless draw would be enough to see both teams advance, the two countries played each other to a standstill and then made very little effort to achieve a positive result.
Like Croatia, the Scandinavians are dreaming of replicating the achievements of past generations. It’s enough to remember Denmark’s class of ’92 pulling off a huge upset in winning the European Championship. They see the match against Croatia as a good chance to match their World Cup quarter-final appearance from two decades ago.
While Croatia has lost only one of their last 11 matches, Denmark base their motivation on an 18-game unbeaten run which stretches back to a 1-0 loss against Montenegro in October 2016. Hareide’s side isn’t the most entertaining, as you’ve seen over the course of the tournament. Denmark is a rather pragmatic team which prefers to defend first while they organise their attacks by getting the best out of Tottenham star Christian Eriksen.
A very important notion is that Hareide didn’t allow himself to get into the trap of one-man squad like Argentina did with Messi. The manager, who has extensive experience coaching in Scandinavia, worked hard to make enough adjustments to the team so they don’t depend entirely on Eriksen.
How they play
Although the brilliant midfielder netted 16 goals in his last 18 appearances for Denmark and then helped his team to book a spot in the knock-out phase with a goal and assist, there is another focal point in Denmark’s attack.
It’s RB Leipzig striker Yussuf Poulsen, who is perfect for their playing style. With his 193 cm height, he gets on the end of a lot of long balls forward, and his team mates aim to win the second balls. The 24-year old striker is pulled out to a more winger-like position where Hareide uses him as a ‘wide target-man’. It’s similar to how Max Allegri used Mario Manzukic for Juventus in the last two seasons.
Denmark often plays in a way where Poulsen is being found on the flanks or central attacking position from defence. With these type of openings from direct play, they’re using their obvious advantage in height against almost every opponent’s fullback. An ideal example of that play style is Twelve’s graphical representation of Simon Kjaer’s long balls from the back.
Kjaer plays alongside Andreas Christensen, a talented ball-playing defender from Chelsea who also knows how to find a teammate high up the pitch. Nothing would be possible for Denmark’s two defenders if the midfield wasn’t structured well though. This is taken care of by their dynamic duo – Delaney and Schone – who sit deeper in midfield and make sure that space is conquered for getting a pass or opening a space for a long ball forward.
However, while Denmark’s midfield is expected to be shut down by Rakitic and Modric, a proper testing will be applied on Croatia’s left-back Ivan Strinic, who’ll take care of Poulsen. AC Milan’s new defender is only 187 centimetres tall in opposition to Poulsen’s 194 in what is obviously a defensive mismatch, and Strinic will need extensive help from either Vida or Lovren in defending long balls from the Danish backline.
Schmeichel’s successful goalkeeping generation
One of the players most responsible for Denmark’s 18-game unbeaten run is Kasper Schmeichel. Son of the great Peter Schmeichel, he has successfully followed in his father’s footsteps. Kasper contributed well to the Danes reaching the knock-out phase, with 12 saves from 13 shots on target faced in the group phase.
Apart from excellent goalkeeping qualities, Schmeichel also plays an important role in the distribution phase of Denmark’s game. Twelve’s graphical representation reveals much about Kasper’s intentions to find Poulsen on the right wing and rarely Larsen on the opposite side.
Sisto the dribbler
With a great season behind him in a Celta Vigo shirt, Pione Sisto will pose an enormous threat to Croatia’s right side. Atletico Madrid’s fullback Sime Vrsaljko will be tested by the pacey and agile Danish dribbler who likes to go in 1v1 situations to utilise his main weapons.
Per Whoscored data, Sisto has completed 11 dribbles in the tournament, which is the sixth most behind Messi, Neymar, Isco, Etebo and Nordin Ambrabat. For comparison, Croatia’s most successful dribbler in the World Cup is Ante Rebic with just five completed take-ons.
Also, Sisto likes to drop into the space and act as an outlet on the left side of the pitch. As Denmark play with a deeper formation you often see Sisto winning the ball in his own half, as Twelve’s graphical representation shows.
Despite Zlatko Dalic making nine changes to Croatia’s first XI to face Iceland, Vatreni is expected to line up exactly like against Argentina with Marcelo Brozovic offering stability as holding midfielder behind Modric and Rakitic. The plan will be to stop Eriksen like they stopped Messi in game two of Group D.
Denmark have yet to rule William Kvist out of the match, which comes a fortnight on from puncturing his lung and breaking two ribs in the win against Peru. Yussuf Poulsen is back from suspension and expected to start on the right, in place of Martin Braithwaite.
It is expected that Nizhny Novgorod will host an exciting match between two European rivals on Sunday evening. The two sides have met only five times before, and have produced two wins apiece and one draw, but the most recent encounter was 14 years ago. Croatia came out on top with a 2-1 win in Copenhagen on that occasion, in a pre-Euro 2004 friendly.
The only previous match at a major tournament came at Euro 1996 with Denmark losing 3-0 on that occasion. It’s hard to forget Davor Suker’s magical moment from that game when he chipped Peter Schmeichel.
Can someone step into Suker’s shoes and repeat that against Schmeichel Jr.?