Sometimes football is not beautiful. Sometimes doing just enough, for just long enough, can lay the foundation, open the door. So it was as a counterattack ended Australia’s agony and Denmark’s World Cup campaign. It took 60 minutes for Mat Leckie to score, an endless hour of last-ditch defending and a goal from Tunisia against France that meant the Socceroos would have to win or be out themselves.
In the end it was Denmark’s second-half impotence that ended their tournament prematurely, their early brightness dissipating in the face of a Socceroos side which left it late but rallied when it had to and once again displayed a level of quality belying their inexperience.
And hands were held to mouths inside Al Janoub Stadium right up until the final whistle, as Christian Eriksen whipped in two dangerous corners and Harry Souttar made one, two, three vital interventions to send Graham Arnold’s side into the round of 16 for the first time since 2006, where they will face an Argentina who have put the shock opening defeat to Saudi Arabia behind them.
The latter is Denmark’s lot. Coach Kasper Hjulmand needed three points to stay in calculations, and even then would have been undone by Tunisia’s defeat of a second-string France side resting sore bodies for the knock-out stages in the knowledge they had already qualified. The scenes of jubilation and heartbreak were already well under way when Antoine Griezmann seemingly equalised for France off the bench, meaning a draw would have sufficed, only to have it chalked off.
The question had always been which Denmark would show up: the lethargic one who drew with Tunisia or the courageous version who lost to France only through the quality of Kylian Mbappé.
Mbappé was among nine changes named by Didier Deschamps over at Education City Stadium, sending a wave of consternation across town – a Tunisia win was no good for either side here.
And as Tunisia set about bossing the B team, Eriksen started the match free and on the move through the middle, only thwarted by Milos Degenek. In the very next moment Riley McGree had gone for a long-range shot, grinning after his shot ricocheted off Joakim Mæhle.
That set the tone and the following 20 minutes unfolded as thus: Aaron Mooy turned the ball over cheaply inside Australia’s half. Mæhle nutmegged Degenek as Leckie chased in vein. In the end the task fell to Mat Ryan. Again and again he contorted his limbs into a kind of doorstopper, his goal line welcoming no man. Leaping high at his near post to deny Mathias Jensen, slamming down a foot to stop a rolling ball, racing off his line to stop Martin Braithwaite before he was even played in.
Mitchell Duke found McGree’s chest and the shot fizzed straight to Kasper Schmeichel. Souttar’s head was closer to the sky than the rest. Tunisia scored; it was ruled offside.
Referee Mustapha Ghorbal was throwing himself about too. Aziz Behich had a yellow card within three minutes for a cynical tug of Skov Olsen. Jesper Lindstrøm was penalised for a push on Degenek. Leckie was harshly pulled up for a tangle with Andreas Christensen, earning the ire of the green-and-gold corner. Olsen was somehow not booked for sliding straight through the back of Duke.
Denmark were slick and smooth on the ball. They pinned their opponents down with precise passing, considered and effective, a picture of economy to Australia’s toil. Eriksen was free and floating at leisure, the outside of his left boot a leisurely tourist in a new neighbourhood. The whole thing was beautiful to watch.
They were livelier, too. The fear for Australia was that the Socceroos had already played their final against Tunisia. It was hard to tell if it was fatigue of the enormity of the occasion, but Lindstrøm was having a field day down the left flank, nutmegging Souttar to Mæhle who was thwarted by Aaron Mooy.
Australia’s brightest moment arrived in first-half stoppage-time when Duke teed up Craig Goodwin who, hurtling towards the left corner flag, skimmed a low cross nobody was there to convert.
Half-time can change games. We saw it last week when Hervé Renard blew a rocket up his Saudi Arabia and they came back to beat Argentina. We do not know what transpired in the Australian dressingroom at the break but they emerged revitalised. Territory was reclaimed, then ceded once again. Kye Rowles was smacked clean in the chest by Olsen and doubled over. Lindstrøm cut infield and readied to shoot.
Tunisia scored. Arnold had a word with his dugout. An Eriksen corner sailed agonisingly close to goal. Australia intercepted and McGree passed to Leckie. He ran into acres of space at the halfway line, dribbled around Mæhle and curved a terrific finish which whistled across Schmeichel and snuck into the bottom-right corner.
Denmark lost their marbles then – and a penalty. Eriksen swung in a high free-kick and Ghorbal blew for a penalty as Souttar downed Dolberg in the box. No sooner had he done it, the offside flag went up on Dolberg.
Keanu Baccus, off the bench, drew a foul and yellow card from Robert Skov. Arnold went to his bench and brought on Jamie MacLaren for Duke, and then defensive reinforcements to help protect the lead. Bailey Wright, who replaced McGree, helped keep Denmark’s late flurry at bay for six minutes of stoppage-time as Souttar produced moments of grit which will once again earn plaudits.
When the full-time whistle blew Australia’s bench stormed the pitch, and the coach was so buried within the bodies that Hjulmand had to fish him out to shake his hand.