6 September ~ Group H was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Portugal would win the group comfortably while Denmark and Norway scrapped for second place and Iceland and Cyprus made up the numbers. But as the end of the qualifying phase draws near Norway and Portugal are joint top with 13 points and are Denmark third with ten, having one game in hand. Tonight's Scandinavian showdown in Copenhagen will be the pivotal game of the group.
Like the last time (and all the other times in recent years) Denmark faced Norway, the war of words preceding the encounter has been drawn from a familiar script: Norway simple, Denmark arrogant. "The Norwegians have a way of keeping luck on their side. They do this by taking no prisoners in any of the game's phases and by running constantly. It's a very simple way of playing football," tutted Jacob Staehelin, editor of Danish website Sporten.dk, this week.
The full derogatory extent of the word "simple" is somewhat lost in the translation here, as rather than denoting a kind of simplistic brilliance it falls more in line with a Danish stereotype of Norway, a perception best summed up by the fact that some Danes refer to the Norwegians as "mountain monkeys". Stupid, ignorant and simple.
Norway's technical director, former national team coach Nils Johan Semb, hit back by stating that the worst thing about Denmark is their footballing arrogance. "They think they're much better than they are, they like to think they're the Nordic Brazil, but they have no reason to think so." Indeed, with unemployed right-back Lars Jacobsen (recently released by West Ham) set to start for Denmark, this particular Danish side is perhaps not in a position to term themselves the Brazil of anything.
The group is finely poised. A win for Denmark would put them on 13 points, tied with Norway and Portugal ahead of their final two fixtures against Cyprus and Portugal. Assuming they'll dispose of Cyprus and that Portugal win their penultimate match against Iceland, it would set up the final game against Portugal in Copenhagen as a straight group decider. And even if they lose there and Norway win their last game against Cyprus, tying the two on 16 points, Denmark would take second place on head-to-head.
A draw, however, would leave Denmark needing to win both their last games, again providing Norway beat Cyprus at home. This outcome would also tie the two, leaving it to goal difference and head-to-head to decide. But of course this scenario also depends on Denmark beating Portugal, which would leave both Denmark and Norway with more points than the Portuguese, and there would be no Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2012.
An unlikely victory for Norway tonight would put the mountain monkeys very much in the front seat, needing only to beat Cyprus to secure either a group victory or likely passage to the Euros as the best runner-up. In short, a Danish win leaves Denmark with one foot at Euro 2012, a Norwegian win puts them half-way there, while a draw makes everything really rather complicated. With the outcome of Group H riding on this Scandinavian clash of footballing cultures the match should be a fascinating contest. Lars Sivertsen