For most of us, a 21st birthday is simply a blur; a night on which you enjoy yourself (maybe a little too much). A night that the next morning makes you pay for – in a cruel and painful way.
But Mikkel Damsgaard is not like you or I. He will always remember the night he turned 21. He was playing in a Euro 2020 quarter-final for Denmark against Czech Republic, and subsequently celebrating (in a responsible manner) his country’s passage into the tournament’s final four.
Denmark’s extraordinary summer continued on Saturday evening, as they beat the Czechs 2-1. Another spirited, resolute and committed performance was testament to how close-knit and strong a bunch of players they are.
Following Christian Eriksen’s on-pitch cardiac arrest, no one would have imagined that we’d be watching Denmark compete at Wembley in the semi-finals of the competition. But here they are. And, following the enforced absence of their talisman, there has had to be a new creator, a new spark and a new torch-carrier throughout the tournament.
That man is Damsgaard. He showed it once more in Denmark’s quarter-final triumph.
He didn’t score, he didn’t assist, but he is visibly getting more confident with every passing minute of football and is increasingly becoming pivotal to his nation’s attacking play.
Throughout the first period, the Sampdoria man picked up pockets of space, stretching the pitch and pulling either opposition midfielders or defenders out of position, allowing room for others to occupy. It was classic, intelligent off-the-ball play.
Tomas Soucek and Tomas Holes simply failed to screen the back four with Damsgaard’s elusive movement. It allowed the likes of Martin Braithwaite, Thomas Delaney, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg or even Kasper Dolberg to come into those freed-up spaces and set moves in motion.
The 21-year old was key in providing an outlet when he was left alone at the top of the pitch, too. In the absence of his two front line colleagues, Damsgaard never picked a misjudged run. His movement in behind the Czech back line was considered, timed perfectly and effective – twice forcing goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik into key saves.
He is evidently becoming more comfortable fulfilling vital roles for the side and, with every game, his team mates seem to trust him more and more. Passes would specifically be played into him when he dropped off markers, heads would shoot up in search of that number 14 and the wing-backs would bust a lung to surge upfield as he turned his defender – because they knew he’d find them in space.
It’s a creative side of him that we’ve seen time and time again over these European Championships and, against Czech Republic, Damsgaard demonstrated his collective attitude and work rate as well.
Following Patrik Schick’s early second half strike to make the score 2-1, Denmark were faced with a problematic scenario. But as we’ve seen before. their team spirit and will to win is practically unrivalled. Attackers were dropping deep to sure up the midfield and Damsgaard, in particular, was constantly conscious of filling in for his wing-back when space had been left unmarked.
The Danish star, through pressing and defensive conscience, eventually racked up four ball recoveries – more than his attacking team mates and more than both wing-backs – before being sacrificed on the hour mark for an extra defensive midfielder.
It was an all-round performance befitting of a talisman. With every passing round of matches, Damsgaard is becoming increasingly impressive and is visibly thriving in his role as the shining light in a Denmark side that could really produce something magical at Euro 2020.