Christian Eriksen of Denmark celebrates scoring a goal during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship Group A match between Denmark and Belarus at the Aarhus stadium in Aarhus, Denmark. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Denmark is solid, but unspectacular and lacking in flash. That is, except for when it comes to Christian Eriksen.
From the time he was 17-years-old, Christian Eriksen has been dubbed the next Michael Laudrup. At the age of 20, he's starting to live up to the comparison. The Denmark and Ajax playmaker has taken the step from promising youngster to top class player in the last year, and Denmark's hopes of advancing in a loaded Group B hinge on his abilities.
Eriksen was a dominant player at Under-17 level and had offers from clubs in Europe's biggest leagues as a teenager, but opted to move from Odense to Ajax in 2008. He made his first team debut in January of 2010 and began to play a key role for Ajax the following season. He entered the 2011-12 campaign as a locked-in first-choice player and had a stellar year, tallying seven goals and 19 assists in 33 Eredivisie games for Ajax.
Denmark handed Eriksen a call-up to the 2010 World Cup, where he was the tournament's youngest player, and he made two appearances. His promise was obvious, but he looked very much like a teenager in the beginning of his professional career. He started to become a more established player in both the Danish national team and Ajax's first team immediately after that World Cup, and announced his presence to the Anglo-centric world on February 9, 2011.
In a friendly match against England, Eriksen stole the show for Denmark. Thoguh England went on to win the match 2-1, Eriksen set up Denmark's 8th minute goal, set up numerous other chances that his teammates weren't able to convert, and was almost unanimously named man of the match by multiple outlets in a losing effort. England midfielders Jack Wilshere and Gareth Barry did almost nothing to limit his influence on the game as he ran the show from his favored No. 10 position.
Eriksen tallied four assists and a goal in Denmark's next five Euro 2012 qualifying matches. The only match in which he recorded neither a goal nor an assist was an away draw to Norway. Denmark won their next four in a row after that, including a massive 2-1 victory over Portugal in which Eriksen provided a 13th-minute assist.
Though Eriksen is asked to play in different systems for his club and country, the function he performs is essentially the same. At Ajax, he's the attacking-most midfielder in the midfield three of Ajax's 4-3-3 setup. His regular partners have been Theo Janssen, a box-to-box midfielder with a nose for goal, and Eyong Enoh, a true holding player. He plays as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 for Denmark, but his role isn't much different. Denmark's wingers track back more than Ajax's and Denmark doesn't have a player in their double pivot that gets forward as much as (or as well as) Janssen, but in both teams, Eriksen is the most advanced midfielder and top creative outlet, tasked with setting up others for goals with his top-notch through balls and creative passing.
Eriksen has been frequently compared to Laudrup, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael Van der Vaart because of the Ajax and Denmark connections between Eriksen and the three No. 10s, but he's much different than all of them. He might not be as much of a goal-scorer as any of them, but he uses a bigger arsenal of flicks and tricks than any of the three, sometimes looking more like Neymar or Ronaldinho than Laudrup. He's more of an athlete than both Sneijder and Van der Vaart, but he's not quite the physically imposing figure that Laudrup was. It's common to make comparisons between young players and other players at their position that share a club or nationality, but Eriksen is unique, and comparisons to Laudrup, Sneijder and Van der Vaart don't quite stand up.
In Denmark's first match, Eriksen's likely to take a bit of a beating. He'll see a few players he's played club football against when Denmark plays the Netherlands, but he'll also run into a couple of guys he hasn't seen at the club level before -- Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. The Dutch aren't exactly playing the 'Total Football' that made them famous these days, and are instead intent on playing two defensive midfielders whose favorite pastime is beating the piss out of guys like Eriksen. The good news is that Holland's defense is shaky and that Bert van Marwijk seems intent on squeezing Klass-Jan Huntelaar and Robin van Persie into the same team, which probably won't work.
Denmark's next task is a match against Germany, where they will be massive underdogs. Only Germany beating themselves or Eriksen having the game of his life can save the Danes from a loss in that match. If they manage to avoid a loss in one of their first two games, they'll go into their final match with something to play for.
That match is against Portugal, who Denmark beat in their final qualifying match. Eriksen shined in that game, and it seems unlikely that they have crafted an answer to Eriksen with the vast array of underwhelming defensive midfielders that they have at their disposal. If Denmark enters that game with a point or more, they might enter it as favorites to win.
The only way Denmark is getting to that final game with a point or more is if Eriksen brings his best to one of the first two games of the tournament and helps his average team to transcend their talent level. Based on what he's done in his best performances for Denmark and what he's done consistently at Ajax, it's not out of the question. His attacking flair and playmaking ability should make or break a well-organized, but otherwise uninspiring Denmark team.
National Team: Denmark
Club Team: Ajax (Netherlands)
Position: Attacking midfielder
Role in team: First choice central attacking midfielder in likely 4-2-3-1