This has been a bruising World Cup for football's aristocracy. One by one the members of the game's ancien regime are being toppled, with upstart nations such as Senegal, South Korea and the United States wielding the guillotine. Already only Brazil survive of the semi-finalists at France 98, only Italy of the last four in Euro 2000. Three former winners have returned home, including both favourites.
Superficially today's match here at the Big Swan Stadium, on the first day of the second round, is another between the nobility and the proletariat, another potential "giant-killing". Except England have long been on their uppers in the international arena and Denmark have for two decades shown the importance of good coaching at youth level and intelligent organisation at the senior.
Such values are belatedly being introduced into the English game but, as they are yet to take full effect, a Danish win would not be remarkable. England may have beaten Argentina in this tournament, but Denmark defeated France. They also reached the quarter-finals of the last World Cup, where they tested Brazil, and won the European Championship 10 years ago this summer. England have not reached the last eight of the World Cup for 12 years – and all Englishmen and women know about the 36 years (and counting) of hurt.
It is important that the England team remember this: that when they look at the clubs of the players on the Denmark team-sheet in the dressing room they concentrate not on the names of the Premiership strugglers Everton, Bolton and Sunderland, but those of the Champions' League regulars Milan, PSV Eindhoven and Schalke 04.
Morten Olsen, Denmark's thoughtful coach, a veteran of the thrilling Danish Dynamite team of the 1980s, said: "We are a little country, we are underdogs." Indeed, Denmark is a country of only five million people. However, China are out and the globe's second and fourth most populous countries, India and Indonesia, never qualified. Only 11 men are required for a football team, 23 for a World Cup squad. Jon Dahl Tomasson, their four-goal leading scorer (his personal tally is double that of the entire England squad) more honestly described his team when he said: "We are an exciting side with experience, youth, and good, hungry players."
Having noted all this, it should be added that England have the quality to win, but only if they go into the game aware that they will have to match the intensity they showed against Argentina to do so. Being underdogs, with no weight of expectation, suited England in that game. Now they must strike the difficult balance between confidence and arrogance required of successful favourites.
"With every game the pressure gets bigger but if you are a big team you have to deal with that," Eriksson said last night. "It is important we are aggressive but patient, that we keep our shape and don't be afraid. When it is a knock-out match you can be afraid to let them score the first goal."
Much will depend on whether England regress to the bad habits demonstrated against Sweden, when they lost possession too easily and became stretched and exhausted as a result. Denmark are similar in attitude to their Scandinavian neighbours, though more attacking in approach with a greater emphasis on wing-play. Certainly the progress of Danny Mills, and the fitness of Ashley Cole (if his thigh strain is risked) will be tested by Jesper Gronkjaer and Dennis Rommedahl. Mills may be tempted to see how fast the fragile Gronkjaer can run with a limp but he needs to maintain the impressive self-control he has displayed so far. On the other flank Trevor Sinclair's preparedness to track back and assist Cole, or Wayne Bridge, should ensure he keeps his place ahead of Kieron Dyer.
For Denmark it looks as though Tomasson will start, though he may not finish. Playing just behind and running off Ebbe Sand, he will need to be carefully watched. Stig Tofting, too, expects to be passed fit, so Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes can expect a scrap in central midfield. The referee, Markus Merk, can be fastidious, so they will have to be disciplined.
Both sides expect the game to be close but open, if not necessarily attractive. Sunderland's Thomas Sorensen, Denmark's goalkeeper, said: "It could be decided by one goal and if we go behind it will be very difficult as England are very solid. We have to watch out for set-pieces and Michael Owen's pace." Owen, incidentally, has beaten Sorensen four times in the Premiership. After four scoreless matches he is due a goal in Japan.
David Beckham, who will be up against the Manchester City-bound Niclas Jensen, is due a performance. He is still not match-fit but is valuable for his presence and dead-ball prowess, even if he is yet to master the ball – provided by his sponsors – when shooting. It was with these two in mind, plus Scholes, that Olsen added: "England have special players who can make a difference. But so do we."
The prize is a quarter-final, probably against Brazil, possibly Belgium, in Shizuoka on Friday. It is likely to be hard-earned. Since Olsen took over, after Euro 2000, Denmark are unbeaten in 13 competitive internationals. England under Eriksson are unbeaten in nine. Penalties are a big possibility.
That might test Eriksson's famous cool, though he is unlikely to appear as overwrought as Giovanni Trapattoni, Italy's coach, the other night. Eriksson appeared relaxed yesterday evening. He knows that with a win tonight, regardless of future results, the campaign will be judged a success. His final words to his team, he suggested, would be: "Go out and play football." Not exactly Churchillian, but perhaps the right choice to induce the controlled performance England require.Reuse content