Schmeichel's Wembley heroics were not enough this time, but Denmark must still be celebrated

By Sports Desk July 07, 2021

The dark horses fell at the penultimate fence.

Wembley Stadium on Wednesday was one step too far for Denmark. From that awful moment when Christian Eriksen collapsed, through two group defeats, a battering of Russia and Wales and Joakim Maehle's magic against the Czech Republic, Kasper Hjulmand's men have captivated fans at Euro 2020 more than any other side.

Against England, the brutal truth of football took over. Denmark were good, but just not good enough. The standout individual performances, the critical moments, the game management – they belonged to the Three Lions.

Fans should commiserate, of course, but they should celebrate, too, for what their team have produced in these past few weeks.

England had been the most resolute of all sides at these finals. Five games, five clean sheets – their best return at a major tournament. They had not let in a goal since March. Midway through the first half against Denmark, Jordan Pickford broke Gordon Banks' record of 720 minutes without conceding.

It was likely to take something special to break that run. Barely 60 seconds later, it duly arrived.

Mikkel Damsgaard, 21 years old, unleashed a sensational, dipping free-kick from more than 30 yards out that flew past Pickford's despairing grasp. It was the first direct free-kick scored at these finals and the eighth direct goal involvement the Sampdoria man – who is sure to attract interest from across the continent – had managed in seven starts for his country.

Damsgaard served up a moment worthy of the stage, of the exceptional tournament Hjulmand's men have had.

It was unfortunate then to concede an equaliser via captain Simon Kjaer, his desperate lunge to stop Raheem Sterling scoring a tap-in only sending the ball into the unguarded net. Perhaps Schmeichel could have done more to cut out Bukayo Saka's cross, though Sterling would have scored a minute earlier but for a mighty block from the Leicester City goalkeeper.

 

Schmeichel has enjoyed trips to Wembley this year. On May 15, Leicester lifted the FA Cup thanks to two moments of stupendous quality against Chelsea: Youri Tielemans' goal, and Schmeichel's fingertip save from Mason Mount. He repeated the trick here, flying to his right to claw away a Harry Maguire header and stopping Kane's goalbound low strike on the stretch in the second half.

You began to sense that, if penalties came, Schmeichel might prove the hero. When he finally faced one, he did indeed keep it out – but the rebound fell at Kane's feet for the easiest Wembley goal he will ever score. He still made a last-second save to deny Sterling at the end of extra time, as if to remind us of his real quality.

There is never a good way to lose a semi-final, but this 2-1 loss felt cruel on Denmark. England deserved to win the match, that's certainly true, but Schmeichel did not deserve to lose. Captain Kjaer, a hero in the truest sense when Eriksen's life was in danger, should never have been the man to score an own goal in his country's biggest game in 29 years.

When it comes to results, elite football can be a harsh place. But events like these are also about the journey, and Denmark's at these finals has been one to remember.

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    Rigobert Song expressed regret over Cameroon's first two World Cup displays after they were eliminated from Group G despite becoming the first African team to beat Brazil at the tournament.

    Cameroon needed to beat the pre-tournament favourites to have any chance of joining them in the last 16 on Friday, and they did so in dramatic fashion as Vincent Aboubakar scored a stoppage-time winner before receiving a second yellow card for celebrating by removing his shirt.

    However, Switzerland's thrilling 3-2 win over Serbia ensured Murat Yakin's side finished two points clear of Cameroon, condemning them to a sixth consecutive group-stage exit at the World Cup.

    The Indomitable Lions did at least go out on a high by ending Brazil's perfect World Cup record against African sides (previously played seven, won seven), but Song felt the result showed Cameroon could have gone further.

    "I didn't even realise that this was such a historic victory. We are one of the African countries who have played more World Cups than most, and now we've beaten Brazil," Song said.

    "My players deserve to be congratulated. They showed tonight they could have done better in the first two games [a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland and a 3-3 draw with Serbia].

    "I think we do have a feeling of regret. Now we realise we could have done better. But we need to look on the positive side as well. 

    "I'm trying to get across a team spirit, that lion's spirit, which needs to be the key to Cameroon teams.

    "We realise now we could have done better in this tournament. We're a young team and today we've seen our young team getting stronger and stronger."

    Cameroon began 2022 by finishing third at the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil, and with just over a year to prepare for the next edition of that tournament – which was pushed back to January 2024 due to weather concerns in Ivory Coast, Song is backing them to improve further.

    "There's another tournament in 2024 and we've built up some momentum now," Song added.

    "I'm satisfied with tonight's performance. I took over the national team not too long ago and I think we are progressing and improving, so I'm proud of this team."

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    Switzerland playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri proved Serbia's nemesis once more by helping knock Dragan Stojkovic's men out of the World Cup on a tumultuous night at Stadium 974.

    Shaqiri netted a last-minute winner against Serbia at the 2018 tournament in Russia and celebrated by making an eagle shape with his hands to show his support for Kosovo, the country of his birth and a former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. That independence is not recognised by Serbia. 

    The Chicago Fire man was booed and jeered throughout while at least one Serbia fan was thrown out for anti-Kosovo chanting.

    Shaqiri had the last laugh with the opening goal as Switzerland, who came into the game knowing a draw would most likely be enough, advanced from Group G with a dramatic 3-2 win, alongside Brazil despite their surprise 1-0 defeat to Cameroon.

    Switzerland nearly went ahead inside the first minute when Granit Xhaka's partially blocked shot fell beautifully for Breel Embolo but Serbia goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic made a smart block before parrying Xhaka's follow up.

    Andrija Zivkovic struck the post from 20 yards in response for Serbia but Murat Yakin's men deservedly led after 20 minutes.

    Djibril Sow recovered Ricardo Rodriguez's left-wing cross and nudged it into the path of Shaqiri, who fired home via a deflection off Strahinja Pavlovic before running off to celebrate by putting a finger to his lips in front of the s

    Serbia responded superbly six minutes later when Dusan Tadic's left-wing cross was guided brilliantly past Gregor Kobel by Aleksandar Mitrovic.

    Shaqiri arrowed wide when clean through, before Tadic impressed again to find Vlahovic, who turned smartly to fire past Kobel despite Remo Freuler almost taking the ball away from the Juventus striker.

    It was Switzerland’s turn to dig deep and they did so admirably, Embolo turning in Silvan Widmer’s cross at the far post to make it the first time since England v Argentina in 1998 that both teams had scored at least twice in a World Cup game before half-time.

    Switzerland completed the turnaround three minutes into the second half. Shaqiri chipped the ball in for Ruben Vargas, who flicked the ball beautifully on for Freuler to finish expertly.

    Tempers frayed as Serbia sensed their time in Qatar was coming to an end - substitute goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic was booked for encroaching on to the pitch to confront the referee while a public address announcement asked for Serbian fans to stop making discriminatory chants and gestures.

    There was one final flashpoint deep into stoppage time when Nikola Milenkovic and Xhaka clashed with several players looking to get involved. Both Milenkovic and Xhaka - another man with ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo - were booked.
     

    What does it mean? Ronaldo and Portugal await

    While Switzerland go on to a meeting with Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday, Serbia will head home.

    On the balance of play it was the right outcome. Switzerland wobbled towards the end of the first half but, for the most part, played with a composure that Serbia lacked.

    Shaqiri joins illustrious duo

    Shaqiri may be the man the Serbian fans love to hate but he showed his endearing quality once more with Switzerland's opening goal.

    It meant he became just one of three players to score at each of the last three World Cup tournaments. The other two? Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

    Evergreen Tadic shows his class

    Tadic may be 34 but he remains Serbia's creative hub. He supplied the opener with a delicious cross from the left and was also instrumental in the second, although Freuler should have done better with his attempted clearance.

    Whether he continues to play international football remains to be seen but he will leave a sizeable hole should he opt to stand down.

    What's next?

    Switzerland finish as runners-up to Brazil in Group G, and go on to face Portugal in four days' time.

    Serbia go home having taken just one point from their three games, against Cameroon.

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