For the fifth time in just under four years, Denmark and Portugal will meet in a competitive fixture on Wednesday. The two teams have been drawn together qualifying for both the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, and on both occasions, Denmark finished with more points and qualified directly for the finals, while Portugal was forced to qualify via a playoff.
This is the first of those five games that will be played at a neutral site, and based on the results of the last four games, this should add some serious unpredictability to the match. In World Cup qualifying, Denmark shockingly upset Portugal on the road, then drew them at home. In both of their Euro 2012 qualifying matches, the home side won.
That makes it sound like this matchup is, more or less, a dead even one. Portugal have the bigger name stars and more attacking talent, but Denmark have a track record of success against Portugal. Since their last two matches have been won by the home team, it's easy to predict a draw, but that assumes that the two games should be given equal weight when the two teams are evaluated against each other.
The truth is that the Denmark team that played away to Portugal in October of 2010 bares little resemblance to the team that is going to play on Wednesday. First choice players Nicklas Bendtner, Christian Eriksen, Niki Zimling, Michael Krohn-Delhi, Simon Poulsen and Daniel Agger didn't start the match, with only Poulsen and Eriksen's absences coming through (poor) tactical decisions. That's both of Wednesday's starting central attackers and four out of six of Wednesday's front six out, along with arguably Denmark's best defender. That's enough missing players to make that result irrelevant in terms of predicting Wednesday's game.
Denmark's lineup for their 2-1 win over Portugal in October of 2011 is a different story. This time, only Poulsen and Agger were missing. Eriksen was arguably the man of the match and the double pivot of Zimling and William Kvist proved much more effective than any Denmark pivot that includes Christian Poulsen. It's also worth noting that the Portugal goal came in stoppage time from a free kick. Just like their opening Euro 2012 match against the Netherlands, they gave up very little that mattered from open play.
There comes a point when a supposedly overachieving team's results are not an accident, or luck. Denmark don't have the highest of high-end talent, but it doesn't matter. They've outplayed Portugal in two straight qualifying cycles and they're coming off of a neutral site win against the Netherlands. They're a good team with a good track record, and if they win on Wednesday, it shouldn't be considered an upset by any definition of the word.
However, there's one important thing to consider when looking at the most recent game between Denmark and Portugal. In that match, Carlos Martins played in midfield while Miguel Veloso sat on the bench and Raul Meireles was asked to play out of position as a defensive midfielder. Martins' injury that kept him out of the tournament was certainly unfortunate for him and deprived Portugal of a midfield option, but at the same time, that injury probably did Portugal a favor.
That's not to say Martins isn't a good player. He's actually a useful player who would make a very good bench option, but he doesn't have any business starting ahead of any of Portugal's current starters. With Meireles in his preferred box-to-box role and Veloso defending, Portugal's midfield is much better than it was with Martins, even if they're still pretty lame and seriously lacking in creativity and bite.
Veloso isn't a terrific defensive midfielder, but he's going to help the team contain Christian Eriksen much more effectively than Martins did. Eriksen was allowed to run wild and completely dominate the last meeting between the two teams. He probably shouldn't have it that easy this time around. That's the good news for Portugal.
The bad news is that Veloso still isn't that great. He had what most would call an average game by his standards against Germany -- not terrific or terrible -- and Mesut Özil was Germany's best attacking player. Eriksen had a below-average game by his standards against the Netherlands while he was up against the nasty double pivot of Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. It's very unlikely that Eriksen doesn't play better on Wednesday. Oh, and his team won that game anyway.
Incredibly, this preview is 700 words old without one mention of Cristiano Ronaldo, the best attacking player in the world not named Lionel Messi. This is because he didn't touch the ball against Germany. His teammates failed to win the ball off Özil and company, and when they did, they did a bad job of getting it to Ronaldo. Since Portugal's midfield still lacks elite tacklers and passers, this could continue to be a trend.
If Portugal actually manages to get the ball to their best player -- hey! -- the game might be really fun. Portugal might score some goals. But because Portugal don't have a center forward worth much of anything or a central attacking playmaker like Wesley Sneijder, Kvist will probably end up leaning a bit more to the right than usual to cut off passing lanes to Ronaldo. His success (or lack thereof) in doing so is probably going to be key for the Danes.
Projected Denmark Lineup (4-2-3-1): Stephan Andersen; Simon Poulsen, Daniel Agger, Simon Kjaer, Lars Jacobsen; Niki Zimling, William Kvist; Michael Krohn-Delhi, Christian Eriksen, Dennis Rommedahl; Nicklas Bendtner
Projected Portugal Lineup (4-3-3): Rui Patricio; Fabio Coentrao, Bruno Alves, Pepe, Joao Pereira; Miguel Veloso, Joao Moutinho, Raul Meireles; Cristiano Ronaldo, Helder Postiga, Nani
Monty the Psychic Metal Disk says: Nani just threw me into a river. 12-8 Denmark.
Game Date/Time: Wednesday, June 13th, 12 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. local
Venue: Arena Lviv, Lviv, Ukraine
TV: ESPN (U.S. - English), ESPN Deportes (U.S. - Spanish), ITV 1 (U.K.), TSN (Canada)