DENMARK, THE unfancied outsiders, crushed Nigeria's hopes of carrying the African challenge into the last eight of the World Cup with a thoroughly professional performance here last night.
The much-vaunted Nigerians sparkled on occasions, but they were found wanting in what should have been their finest hour and were picked apart ruthlessly by Michael Laudrup. At 34, the Danish captain may be past his prime, but he still had enough in his repertoire to steer Denmark into the quarter-finals for the first time, where they will meet Brazil in Nantes on Friday.
Nigeria came into the match under something of a cloud, with a possible Fifa investigation into their final Group D match against Paraguay which they lost 1-0, having rested six first-choice players, effectively ending Spain's hopes of qualifying ahead of Paraguay. They were back to full- strength of course last night, with Nwankwo Kanu, the Internazionale striker, given his first start since missing the qualifying campaign with a heart complaint.
The Danes came through unconvincingly behind France from Group C, but it was they who found their feet first in the cavernous national stadium. With the game only three minutes old Michael Laudrup found a surprising amount of space between Celestine Babayaro and Okechukwu Uche, and he was picked out expertly by Martin Jorgensen. The Danish captain checked his run and rolled the ball along the edge of the penalty area into the path of Peter Moller, who struck a first-time shot left-footed, low past Peter Rufai into the corner of the net.
Nigeria, who went out at the same stage four years ago after leading Italy with less than a minute remaining, took some time to recover their poise. Michael Laudrup was enjoying plenty of room in midfield and soon made Nigeria pay again for their negligence. Brought down just outside the area in a central position, his back-heeled free-kick was hit powerfully by Moller and Rufai did well to get hands to it, but he failed to hold on and Brian Laudrup won the race with Taribo West for the loose ball to put the Danes two up inside 12 minutes.
At last Nigeria responded with something like the form that made them the people's champions as well as the Olympic champions, and it was Kanu who provided the inspiration with a shot that Peter Schmeichel spilled. Alas for the Nigerians they had no one as alert as Brian Laudrup. Schmeichel had to be vigilant again soon afterwards, diving to claim the ball at Kanu's feet after a lovely through-ball from Jay-Jay Okocha, the Nigerians' playmaker, who was beginning to find his range.
As the first half wore on the breathtaking skills of the Nigerians began to dominate proceedings, particularly those of Kanu and Okocha. All that was lacking was the final touch as Kanu headed over after Okocha had beaten Soren Colding all ends up, and Okocha himself volleyed just wide. The closest they came was when Kanu and Finidi George combined to set up Okacha, who teased three defenders on the edge of the area before making room for the shot which curled just over Schmeichel's bar.
But the half ended with another Moller shot that required a good save from Rufai, and the Danes picked up where they left off after the break with Brian Laudrup's cross-shot leaving Rufai stranded before bouncing to safety off the top of the crossbar. Nigeria were enjoying plenty of possession but as Kanu began to fade as a threat, so Okacha became less effective and Denmark seized the moment to book their passage into the last eight.
Again Michel Laudrup was the architect. Picking the ball up 30 yards from goal there seemed to be little on for him but he manufactured a pass, scooping the ball up and through the Nigerian cover for Ebbe Sand. The substitute still had work to do but he controlled the ball well as it dropped, before stealing in between Uche and West to rifle his shot past the helpless Rufai.
There was more to come, as 14 minutes from time the Danes rubbed salt in the wound by adding a fourth after Rufai had failed to hold on to Jorgensen's shot. Sand nipped in and laid it back to Jorgensen, who picked out Thomas Helveg, and he made no mistake from close range.
All that remained from Nigeria Tijani Babangida's clonsolation effort, a beautifully struck far post volley, but not even the scorer was in the mood to celebrate.
NIGERIA (4-1-3-2): Rufai (Deportivo); Adepoju (Real Sociedad), Okechukwu (Fenerbahce), West (Internazionale), Babayaro (Chelsea); Oliseh (Ajax); Finidi (Real Betis), Okocha (Fenerbahce), Lawal (Roda); Kanu (Internazionale), Ikpeba (Monaco). Substitutes: Yekini (FC Zurich) for Kanu, 65; Babangida (Ajax) for Lawal, 73;
DENMARK (4-3-3): Schmeichel (Manchester United); Colding (Brondby), Rieper (Celtic), Hogh (Fenerbahce), Heintze (Bayern Leverkusen); Jorgensen (Udinese), Helveg (Udinese), A Nielsen (Tottenham); B Laudrup (Chelsea), Moller (PSV Eindhoven), M Laudrup (Ajax). : Substitutes: Sand for Moller, 59; Horst for B Laudrup, 78; Frandsen for M Laudrup, 84.
Referee: Urs Meier (Switzerland).