It is usual for the final preliminary round day to see certain teams under pressure in the battle for a berth in the next stage of the EHF EURO. Not so usual is seeing the winners of the previous major international championship in that position.
Current world and Olympic title holders Denmark not only face a must-win situation against Russia on Wednesday in Malmö, but they do not entirely control their own fate – they rely on Hungary losing to Iceland in the earlier match.
If Hungary beat Iceland, Denmark will not be able to proceed and they will be sure of their lowest final ranking ever at the EURO.
It has been a difficult road for Denmark. They entered the EURO as one of the favourites to play for the title, considering both their status as current holders of two global titles, along with the fact that their campaign would be played only 30 kilometres from home and therefore make it easy for Danish fans to support their team.
With some injuries but the core squad that claimed the world title one year ago largely intact, and over 10,000 Danish fans pouring into Malmö Arena for the opening clash, the stage seemed set for what could be another dream campaign after Denmark’s clean sweep of the 2019 World Championship.
However, Denmark suffered a considerable upset in the opening match, as they lost to Iceland by one goal.
“We are not satisfied with the result. There are some things that we would have done differently, but we also realise we faced a good team today,” said Henrik Mollgaard following the match.
“Now, our tournament is going to be a lot more difficult. We need to look forward to the next game, and hopefully we can get our two points there, and hopefully go through to the main round.”
Denmark may not have been satisfied with their first match, but the main round berth was still well within reach – however, Mollgaard’s words proved true. The tournament was about to become a lot more difficult.
The Danes entered round two needing to avoid a loss against Hungary to keep their chances alive. As Hungary are the youngest team at the EURO while Denmark are one of the most experienced, particularly considering their spectacular title-winning campaigns in recent years, it seemed they would rise to the occasion.
“People have high expectations, and so have we”
Denmark fell behind but they seemed to have their chances for a win in the last minutes. A save from Jannick Green opened the door for Denmark to take the lead for the first time in the game with just over three minutes to play. But Hungary equalised and neither team could score again, and the match ended in a draw.
“I think we were a little bit lucky if you look at the whole game, because they were the better side, but in the end we had a big opportunity to get both points. Therefore, it’s also extremely disappointing that we didn’t get it because normally when it’s close in the end I think we are a good team to decide to our advantage. But today, it was not that day,” said Green.
Anyone who has seen Denmark play in a full arena of their own supporters knows how unstoppable they seem with such support and in their best form, as was the case when they left Norway chanceless in the World Championship final one year ago.
After Green’s save, the atmosphere in Malmö Arena was reminiscent of Denmark’s best moments, and it seemed their EURO campaign had finally taken a positive turn. Green agrees that the team could feel that on court for a moment.
“The atmosphere was so much better after that [penalty save] and we got two or three fast goals, and I really thought that we could win the game then. I had the feeling we had the upper hand, but then, again, we made too many mistakes.”
While Denmark entered the game against Hungary needing to avoid defeat, that was small-time pressure in comparison with what the team have played well under before. However, as the clock ticked on and Denmark were struggling for answers, nerves were visibly building.
“Maybe some were a little bit nervous. It’s hard to say, but it’s disappointing that we didn’t win because we have so much more in us,” said Green following the draw, which certainly felt like a loss for Denmark. Perhaps the first defeat was harder to forget than Denmark hoped.
“We tried, but we did look nervous and we didn’t play our best, so maybe it was still somewhere in our head. As the game went on and we were two, three, four goals behind, of course we were getting a little nervous and you also felt that in the arena. People have high expectations, and so have we. When it’s like this, it’s difficult for us.”
Denmark will meet Russia in the final match for group E on Wednesday night at 20:30 CET. The world champions will know what they need when they take the court. If Hungary win or draw versus Iceland, Denmark’s campaign will end with the match against Russia.
If Hungary are defeated, Denmark have the chance to control their fate. Will they shake off the difficult past days and give their fans in Malmö the awaited victory?