We needed just two minutes to find out how Denmark would react against Belgium, a match played five days after their talismanic midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed after suffering from cardiac arrest in their Euro 2020 opener against Finland.
It was uncharted territory for all involved. Denmark forward Yussuf Poulsen said on Wednesday the team didn't know how the events of Sunday would affect them come game time. Would the players be inspired, or would they be unable to escape the terrifying images of their teammate laying on the pitch? And this was no ordinary match, but the second group-stage game against Belgium, the No. 1 ranked team in the world and a favorite to win Euro 2020.
But Denmark were magnificent and played with ambition, intensity and aggression. They started brilliantly, getting a goal within two minutes. When Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg's pass found Poulsen on the edge of the penalty area, he took one touch and with just 99 seconds on the clock hammered it past goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and into the bottom corner of Belgium's net for the second fastest goal in the history of the European Championship. Poulsen immediately ran to the corner of the Parken Stadium pitch where his teammate had fallen. The roar from the crowd made it seem as if the stadium would lift off into space, the rapturous cacophony heard at the nearby Rigshospitalet hospital where Eriksen is being treated.
"We showed we're mentally strong and it was an additional motivation to play for Christian and the entire country," said striker Martin Braithwaite. "We felt the whole stadium being with us from the beginning of the game."
Belgium ended up winning 2-1 thanks to the wondrous and incomparable Kevin De Bruyne, but this defeat was no slight to Denmark. They were magnificent in their own right and dominated the first half, but were simply outplayed for parts of the second half as Belgium showed their quality which includes a deep bench of talent.
The Danes had so much to adjust to, and manage, both from an emotional and sporting sense. Eriksen is Denmark's "heart," as manager Kasper Hjulmand said pre-match. Put simply, he's their best player and has been a near constant in the side having played in 109 of 120 matches since his international debut in 2010. (He was also born in 1992, the year Denmark won their only European Championships.)
"I didn't expect too much from this game, but I can't describe the pride I feel for the squad," said Hjulmand. "What they showed -- the quality ... four days after almost losing one of their best friends, they got up and played such a game. This was amazing. They totally dominated the best team in the world and I have so much respect for them."
Eriksen, who plays for Inter Milan in Serie A, has been on the thoughts of everyone in football. But for his teammates, they had to balance personal reflection with match preparation. While the anger at having been pressured to finish their match against Finland was talked about in the build-up to Belgium, the team tried to stay focused. They needed to hatch a plan to get their Euro 2020 campaign back on track.
From the hospital, Eriksen had been in frequent touch with the team via FaceTime. On Sunday, Denmark worked with four psychologists to disentangle the previous 24 hours. By Monday, they did their best to look ahead to the task of facing Belgium, with Hjulmand bringing in a new 3-4-3 system. Midfielder Thomas Delaney said the players talked about their feelings in an attempt to process what had happened, which brought them closer together. They were also offered the chance to return to the Parken Stadium on Wednesday, if they wanted to see the place again before facing Belgium.
References and images of Eriksen were everywhere. His image was painted on the wall of the fan zone in Copenhagen, while supporters in the stadium carried banners wishing him well. Before the match a huge No.10 Eriksen shirt was unveiled on the pitch. His teammates gathered themselves in the tunnel as "You'll Never Walk Alone'" -- a refrain heard at Liverpool matches -- played out on the stadium speakers. We saw goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel give captain Simon Kjaer two pats on the arm, as much to say they were all there behind him, the inspirational Danish skipper who had held Eriksen's tongue on Saturday to prevent him from swallowing it. Kjaer, who won his 109th cap on Thursday to draw level with Eriksen, was the man who, along with Delaney and Poulsen, had grouped the team together around their teammate as he received CPR on the pitch.
While Eriksen surely knew of the planned tribute in the 10th minute, there was no way he could have comprehended the outpouring of love and support he received from everyone at the Parken Stadium. The two teams had agreed to put the ball out in the 10th minute to join in a minute's applause, but you can forgive the Belgium players for needing a reminder to put the ball out, having already found themselves a goal down and in their opponent's half. It was a moment where players caught their breath after the hectic start, and was as much cathartic as it was stirring. Kjaer and Schmeichel hugged in the Denmark penalty area. Eriksen's Inter Milan teammate Romelu Lukaku embraced Delaney as a banner reading 'Hele Danmark er med dig Christian' (All of Denmark is with you Christian) was rolled out in the stands.
"I spoke to Christian this afternoon, it was a nice conversation", said Lukaku post-match. "I am really grateful that Christian is still among us. I hope he comes back quickly."
And then it was back into this tumble-dryer of a match where Denmark continued to throw everything at a startled Belgium. Whatever preparation Denmark did on a personal, sporting and emotional level worked in that first half. They went into the match at 100 miles an hour, with Daniel Wass catching Thorgan Hazard in the first minute. Then came the Danish goal, as Hojbjerg intercepted Jason Denayer's lazy pass to put through Poulsen who slotted it home. There were further signs of re-affirmation of Denmark's focus and quality: Schmeichel making a comfortable save from a Dries Mertens header, Joakim Maehle dribbling through the Belgium defense, Wass slamming one over the bar, while 20-year-old Mikkel Damsgaard was fantastic, despite being given the sizable task of trying to fill the boots of the irreplaceable Eriksen. They dominated the first half, but then on came Kevin De Bruyne.
"The fans created an incredible atmosphere, and the fans gave the home team a goal lead," said Belgium manager Roberto Martinez. "We were shell-shocked, it took us 20 minutes to start being ourselves. We couldn't get through that desire and heart Denmark put on us, that's expected.
"The first half there was a lot of emotion involved and it took away what we could do on a football pitch. In the second half we were able to be ourselves and compete in a better way. The Danish team went on the front foot from the first second. They were way quicker to react in everything."
De Bruyne's introduction at half-time, he is still working his way back to full fitness after suffering facial fractures in the Champions League Final, galvanized this Belgium comeback. First, he teed up Thorgan Hazard's equalizer. It was a wonderfully worked goal, as Lukaku took it into the box, then found De Bruyne, who took a one touch and feinted to shoot, but instead played a square ball to Hazard to tap it past a helpless Schmeichel.
Then there was his wonderful second. The build-up saw Lukaku, Youri Tielemans, Thorgan Hazard and Eden Hazard link up, with the elder Hazard finding De Bruyne 25 yards from goal. De Bruyne hit it first time with his left, starting it outside the post but placing it perfectly in Schmeichel's bottom corner. He headed to that same far patch of the stadium as Poulsen did, but his celebration was understandably subdued, as he gestured to the crowd and his teammates for calm. Despite Braithwaite hitting the bar late on, Belgium's strength in depth -- imagine the luxury of bringing on a player of De Bruyne's calibre at half-time -- changed the flow of the match.
Denmark are not yet out of this tournament, but now must win against Russia in the final round, and hope that is enough for them to get through.
"With Christian Eriksen in our hearts and minds, knowing he's still here... we know that it's going to be a tough few weeks for you Christian but we're here for you," said Hjulmand afterwards. "We're going to stick together and beat the Russians. We're not done in this competition."
Braithwaite added: "To all the kids who have dreams, please keep fighting. We're going to finish this and make sure we get through the group stages -- there are no limits for this team."
The Danish FA used to be teased for their slogan, "A Part of Something Bigger" as they flitted between major tournaments and struggled to make an impact on the pitch. But no longer. Even in defeat, the way they played, with their incredible courage, ambition, intensity and passion was the perfect tribute to their recovering star.