World Cup Preview: Group D

Kasper Dolberg (No. 12) and the Denmark squad

Kasper Dolberg (No. 12) and the Denmark squad
Photo: Getty Images

It you ascribe to the theory that this will be a truly goofy World Cup — that the short run-up, the injuries everywhere (not clear the amount of injured is all that abnormal but let’s go with it), the odd setting — and that some team from out of nowhere could make a run, you’re probably sizing up your betting/investment opportunities. There isn’t much money to be made from France or Argentina or Brazil. You want a bomber. The kind of score that sets you up for a couple weeks. Maybe even a month. One you remember forever. You want that 18-1 that closes hard on the outside to just get up at the wire to close out a Pick 4 for you at Santa Anita. The high we horse racing handicappers are constantly chasing.

So you may look at Denmark at 28-1, or +2800 if you prefer, and think, “Yeah, that’s the one,” and already picture the Wagyu steak you’re going to be getting on the night of December 18th (though given the 10 AM EST start time of the final, maybe it’s all the brunch, depending on how you swing).

Certainly there are tantalizing aspects of going with the Danes for such a price. Semifinalists at the Euros, where they took England to extra time at Wembley. They only capitulated thanks to an own goal and Harry Kane scoring the rebound off his own penalty. They have a unique togetherness, thanks to Christian Eriksen’s collapse and recovery during Euro 2020(1). And now Eriksen is back! They walked their qualifying group. And in their last “competitive” outing (how much the Nations League was really competitive is up to your judgment) they clocked France 2-0 in Copenhagen in September.

There’s a lot of good mojo here. They can also bounce through a couple different systems, flexing between a 3-4-3 or a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. They have a couple players who really come alive when wearing the national team shirt. Starting to see the boxcar payout, aren’t you?

Getting down to brass tax, yes, there’s a lot to like. The return of Eriksen is the biggest story, and he is still Denmark’s best and most important player. While they solved his absence in the summer of 2021 through a group effort, without him they can still be a bit blunt. And he helps solve one of their problems, which is the lack of a true, trustworthy striker in, that he can set up chances from open play or set-pieces that anyone can finish. And with Denmark, he gets a platform from Pierre Hojbjerg and Thomas Delaney/Matthias Jensen that he doesn’t get at Man United. He can go wherever and do whatever he pleases with Denmark. Again, with the short run-up, set pieces may be even more vital than normal and there’s few you’d rather have delivering them than Eriksen.

They sport one of the best defenders in Italy, Simon Kjær, the backstop to AC Milan’s Scudetto last season. They have an Atalanta full/wing-back in Thomas Mæle, and as we all know, having Atalanta full/wing-backs is a ticket to fun at all times, because what you really get is a wide-forward/winger/fullback all at the same time. Such is the way Atalatna play and such is the way of any player they deem worthy of one of their wing-back spots. Højbjerg is one of those players who just becomes something else when playing for his country. Let’s just say they know who they are.

But there are some red flags. The big one is that there isn’t anyone here they can count on to consistently bang in the goals. Their most likely starter is Kasper Dolberg, who scored against France in that win and netted at the Euros, but is barely playing with Sevilla at the moment. The wildcard is Jesper Lindstrøm, who has six goals in 13 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt so far this season, but has never gotten a run with the national team (he’s just 22). You fear that for all of the great play Denmark can produce, they might run into a match where they just can’t finish it all off. And it only takes one of those to fuck up your tournament beyond repair.

In the back, Andreas Christensen isn’t a regular for Chelsea as he was when the Euros took place, but is in and out of the lineup for Barcelona. While Kasper Schmeichel has a big reputation, he’s 36 now and it’s been a few seasons since he’s been a plus-keeper. Maybe he can conjure one last lunge, but he doesn’t jump off the page in this state as a keeper who can go Patrick Roy ‘86 for a team.

And some of the past results that make them so tasty aren’t quite what they seem. While they did take England to extra-time, they were mostly kicked around in that match (2.7-0.2 in xG). They were somewhat lucky to even get past the Czechs in the quarters. Their qualifying group was pretty damn soft. Fair play to them, they trounced through it as a good team should do, but you can’t point to any huge results there.

And if they don’t win this group, it’ll be Argentina in the Round of 16, which…is a problem. Should they upset France and win the group, then it’s the hanging curve of Mexico or Poland or Saudi Arabia in the round of 16. Then it could be England or the Dutch or (tries not to pass out) the US. So yeah, there’s just a bit riding on their second match against the defending champs.

Ah, France. It hasn’t been a pleasant road for teams that won the previous World Cup in recent history. Germany threw up most of their intestines in Russia and went out in the Round of 16 to Russia on penalties in the worst display of tiki-taka in history. Spain didn’t get out of the group in Brazil. Neither did Italy in 2010.

And it hasn’t been exactly smooth-sailing in the build for Les Bleus, but it never is. After all, they’re a bit fuckin’ French. The midfield that won the trophy last time isn’t here at all, as both N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba won’t suit up. That leaves Aurélien Tchouaméni and Eduardo Camavinga to anchor the middle. Which is hardly the worst fate, given that’s the midfield that’s currently also anchoring Real Madrid as it leaves tire tracks all over La Liga. But they are inexperienced at this highest level, and there is very little depth there. Unless you trust Adrien Rabiot, and if you do, you probably have a crypto portfolio.

Ok but like, they still have that front line, where Kylian Mbappe can play off Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann and if that doesn’t work there’s Christopher Nkunku or Kingsley Coman to change things up if they need. So they have the best forward in France, the best forward in Spain, and maybe the best forward in Germany to call upon to get goals. Pretty easy to see how a dolt like Didier Deschamps won a World Cup as manager now.

The defense has a wealth of options too, like William Saliba who is currently anchoring the Premier League leaders. Or maybe Raphaél Varane or Dayot Upamecano is more your speed. Or maybe you’re a Presnel Kimpembe guy or girl. At fullback, there’s either Hernández (Lucas or Theo) and Benjamin Pavard. Throw a dart at a board and France will roll out a menacing defense and attack. It’s just a question if they can link the two.

While Australia are a neutral favorite simply by being outspoken about the ridiculousness of this tournament taking place in Qatar, it doesn’t feel like they’ll be around long to stage their protest. This is a squad made up of A-Leaguers and Scottish Premier League players, only one of which is on Celtic or Rangers. They failed to beat either Japan or Saudi Arabia in their qualifying group, the only real teams they saw. They needed penalties to get past Peru to qualify for the tournament. Know them early or don’t know them at all.

Tunisia show up as probably Africa’s weakest qualifier. The last time we saw them in a tournament, they were losing to Burkina-Faso in the African Cup of Nations quarter finals and then sneaking past Mali in qualifying, 1-0 over two legs. They will hope that the troika of Aissa Laïdouni, Wahbi Khazri, Youssef Msakni can send a thunderbolt into either France or Denmark (something like this) while maybe notching only their third ever win at a World Cup over Australia.

Manager most likely to get red carded

Australia’s Graham Arnold. Deschamps spends too much time just with a confused look on his face as he watches what goes on before him, Kasper Hjulmand is just too cool, so it’s between Arnold and Tunisia’s Jalel Kadri. We’re going with the Aussie to lose his cool.

Best jerseys

They’re the chalk in so many ways, but you really can’t go wrong with the understated France look.

Schedule

Tuesday, November 22nd – Denmark v. Tunisia (8am EST), France v. Australia (2pm EST)

Saturday, November 26th – Tunisia v. Australia (5am EST), France v. Denmark (2pm EST)

Wednesday, November 30th – France v. Tunisia, Denmark v. Australia (10am EST)

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