DENMARK MAY not be the force they were when winning the European Championship six years ago, but they took the first step yesterday towards making their mark on this World Cup. The Danes' combination of physical strength and good technique - largely in the shape of Brian Laudrup - proved too much for a Saudi Arabia team who only briefly found their stride.
But for some poor finishing, the Danes would have had the match sewn up by half-time and, in the end, it took a 67th-minute goal by Celtic's Marc Rieper to settle the game. However, the Danes should qualify from the group and France, the favourites, could find them difficult opponents.
For the three Danes who were playing in Old Firm matches last season - Brian Laudrup, Marc Rieper and Morten Wieghorst - the weather must have felt more like Glasgow in March than France in June. With rain in the air and an overcast sky, the chilly conditions made the Stade Felix-Bollaert seem a far cry from the Saudi Arabian homeland.
Lens, where England will play their final group game against Colombia, is the smallest town ever to stage a match in the World Cup finals. The 41,000 capacity ground can comfortably accommodate the local town's whole population and before the game the Danish invasion turned the streets into a sea of red and white. Although one enterprising Saudi supporter with a loudspeaker ensured that his side were not without vocal backing inside the stadium, the Danish fans vastly out-numbered their opponents.
In the circumstances, it was no surprise that it was Denmark who were the quicker into their stride. Brian Laudrup, who will be wearing Chelsea's colours next season, had a roving role upfront alongside the powerful striker Ebbe Sand and the pair quickly made inroads into the uncertain, stuttering Saudi defence. Laudrup, in particular, showed some delightful touches and dribbling skills as he took on the Saudi defenders.
However, it was in the air that Denmark caused the most problems. Sand and Wieghorst won almost every aerial challenge in the penalty area and created a series of openings in the first half which should have brought some greater reward.
The best chance fell to Sand, who shot over the bar from close range after Wieghorst's knock-down. The Celtic man himself fired over the bar after Soren Colding had won yet another header, while Rieper was denied by Mohammed Al-Daye, the Saudi goalkeeper, when following up his own header.
The Saudis had shown little of the enterprise that made them such dangerous opponents in the last World Cup, though they started to get into the game just before the interval and the Denmark goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel made a flying save from Hussain Solaimani's free-kick.
Yet having held out in the first half, the Saudis played with more assurance after the break. Their possession football began to frustrate both Denmark and their fans, who started whistling as much in frustration at their own side's failure to impose themselves as in disapproval of the Saudis' go-slow tactics.
Sami Al-Jaber, the Saudis' most dangerous forward, found some space in front of the Danish back four and the red and white defence looked uncomfortable as he started to run at them with confidence. The elegant Khalid Al-Muwalid was also getting into the game and his skills set up the Saudis' best chance so far, though Fuad Amin was unable to provide the necessary finishing touch.
The Danes had failed to provide the crosses which had caused so much trouble in the first half, but just when it seemed they were losing their hold on the match they scored in typical fashion. Brian Laudrup found space on the right and his cross was firmly headed into the net by the unmarked Rieper at the far post.
DENMARK (4-4-2): Schmeichel (Manchester United); Colding (Brondby), Rieper (Celtic), Hogh (Fenerbahce), Schjonberg (Kaiserslautern); Jorgensen (Udinese), Helveg (Udinese), Wieghorst (Celtic), M Laudrup (Ajax); B Laudrup (Chelsea), Sand (Brondby). Substitutes: Nielsen (Tottenham Hotspur) for Wieghorst, 65; Frandsen (Bolton Wanderers) for Jorgensen, 73; Heintze (Bayer Leverkusen) for B Laudrup, 83.
SAUDI ARABIA: Al-Daye (Al-Tae); Al-Jahni (Al-Ahli), Al-Khlaiwi (Al-Ittihad), Zebramawi (Al-Ahli), Solaimani (Al-Ahli), Al-Shahrani (Al-Ahli), Amin (Al-Shabab), K Al-Owairan (Al-Hilal), Al-Muwalid (Al-Ahli); Al-Jaber (Al- Hilal), S Al-Owairan (Al-Hilal). Substitutes: Saleh (Al-Ahli) for Amin, 78; Al-Dossari (Al Wehda) for S Al-Owairan, 79; Al-Thyniyan (Al Hilal) for Al-Jaber, 86.
Referee: J Castrilli (Argentina).