This was a reminder that Denmark must walk steadily before they attempt to run. They have been tipped as a contender to go all the way and their spectacular form of the past 18 months makes it easy to see why. Here, though, they were often second best to an impressive Tunisia, whose point was richly merited despite a glaring second-half miss from the substitute Andreas Cornelius.
If the match had been billed as Christian Eriksen’s once unthinkable return to the World Cup stage, it became more memorable for an atmosphere that gave the lie to any notion this tournament will be bereft of fanatical football crowds. Had Tunisia scored the winner that would not have flattered them, the reaction might have been audible 2,500 miles away in north Africa. In the event they have already taken their own interest in this tournament to the final Group D matchday and complicated Denmark’s hopes of topping the pile.
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This certainly felt a million miles away from the uneasy, eerie sterility of Sunday’s opening game. It had the host nation feeling that occasion lacked, at least 30,000 Tunisians packing the stands and making an almighty din. The noise barely let up and, in the early exchanges, clearly gave their side a few extra per cent. When Aissa Laidouni thundered into a tackle with under two minutes on the clock his public roared; in response, the midfielder beat his chest and geed them up further with windmilling arms. Crowd and team felt like one entity, spurring each other on to a tide of early pressure.
For the Danes, it must have felt like facing an extra man. The centre-forward Issam Jebali had a shot blocked and then, in the 11th minute, there was a more serious scare when Mohamed Drager’s 20-yard drive snicked off Andreas Christensen and spun a foot wide. Kasper Schmeichel was rooted; the exhalation of disappointment behind him was louder than some goal celebrations.
Denmark could not establish any rhythm. They needed to slow the game down and managed to do so for a spell, the hitherto bypassed Eriksen seeing some possession and causing brief alarm with a teasing free-kick from the right.
The intensity, though, still stemmed from Tunisia. They had found an effective balance between defence and attack, picking their moments to press, and briefly thought it had borne fruit when Jebali ran through before beating Schmeichel. He had strayed offside but Drager had no such issues when, after a magical run in midfield from Youssef Msakni, a shooting chance beckoned. A recovery tackle from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg saved Denmark but they were living on their nerves.
Laidouni blazed wide after a half-cleared corner and, although space occasionally presented itself down the flanks, Denmark offered little before half time beyond a centre from Andreas Skov Olsen that just evaded Højbjerg. The biggest let-off of all came in the 42nd minute when Jebali, anticipating a mishit shot from Msakni, attempted to dink over Schmeichel but was foiled by a brilliant tip wide.
Had he scored, VAR might have determined his lower arm was offside although there is no guarantee. An enforced change saw Thomas Delaney, Denmark’s powerhouse midfielder, replaced by Mikkel Damsgaard after the effects of a fall. Eriksen moved into a deeper role and the ambition was that, after the interval, he might finally secure them a foothold.
Some hope. Within six minutes Jebali, who plays his club football in Denmark with Odense, escaped again but fluffed his intended pass to the Brondby forward Anis Ben Slimane and allowed Christensen to intercept. In the ensuing spell, shots were peppered towards Schmeichel’s goal; none were of consequence, but reinforced the impression Tunisia were on top.
Skov had an effort disallowed for offside and Kasper Dolberg flicked a Damsgaard delivery across goal as Denmark, who had to respond, sparked into life. Kasper Hjulmand made three changes and should have been rewarded when one of the new arrivals, Cornelius, fluffed his lines. Eriksen had just seen a shot tipped wide by Aymen Dahmen when, from the resulting corner, Christensen headed across goal. Had Cornelius stretched out a foot, he would surely have converted from two yards. Instead he stooped into an awkward header, made only a grazing contact and somehow found the far upright.
Tunisia screamed for a handball by Joachim Andersen, deemed accidental, at the other end and this was a pulsating, end-to-end affair now. But nobody could fashion another close call until, at the death, Dahmen clawed away Jesper Lindstrøm’s outrageous attempt. Tunisia survived a late VAR review for handball and their fans could sing into the night. The Guardian