Handball fever is increasing in Denmark. Not only because the country is going to host the first major tournament in 36 years – not since the 1978 World Championship has Denmark been the venue of a major championship for men – but also because the Danish national team is generally rated among the top favourites to take the title on home ground in January. Just like Ulrik Wilbek's men did in Norway in 2008 and in Serbia last year.
The great expectations are shared by Denmark´s most competent experts. Lars Christiansen as well as Peter Bredsdorff-Larsen were both part of the Danish team who became European champions for the first time in history in Norway in 2008 – as player and as assistant coach.
Lars Christiansen, an icon in Danish handball, ended his international career in the spring of 2012 after having scoring 1503 goals in 338 internationals, which gives the former left winger the national record for both goals and appearances for his country. He has great confidence in his successor in the Danish national team.
"Denmark are obvious favourites. Having been in three finals at major championships over the past two years and playing at home in front of a filled hall in Herning plus the fact that they have players of the highest world class in all positions simply makes them favourites.
It would be an understatement just to speak of reaching the semi-final as the success criteria under these circumstances, and I am happy to notice that players and coaches seem to be seeing things the same way," Lars Christiansen told ehf-euro.com.
Missing Markussen makes changes necessary
The 6:0 defence will undoubtedly be the basis for Danish success. Early in his reign as national coach Ulrik Wilbek was experimenting with an attacking 3:3 defence, but he soon realised that the time he had with the team was not enough to implement the system thoroughly, so the 6:0 formation and goalkeeper Niklas Landin behind it will need to perform at their very best.
In the attack, the Danes will be missing Nikolaj Markussen due to a snapped Achilles tendon. Wilbek has already admitted that the absence of the 2.11 meter tall left back has forced him to eliminate certain combinations from the attacking play which were based directly in Markussen's involvement.
Therefore, one might think that Markussen´s absence would put additional pressure on Mikkel Hansen in the left back position, but the fact the Mads Mensah Larsen has showed impressive form for Aalborg Handball in the VELUX EHF Champions League as well as in the Danish league throughout the autumn definitely leaves Denmark with more than one option in this position.
Instead, worries among Danish handball fans have been attached to the opposite back position, where Kasper Søndergaard has appeared to be the only real left-handed threat from distance.
However, considering the fine performances shown by Denmark´s second choice for the right back position, Mads Christiansen, at the recent Golden League tournament in Norway, the Danes actually seem to be well covered in this position as well.
A further position, to which some uncertainly is related, is the playmaker position, where Rasmus Lauge may or may not be fit in time for January.
If the centre back from THW Kiel does not get fit in time from his recent cruciate ligament injury, Thomas Mogensen from Kiel´s North German rivals Flensburg can probably look forward to carrying quite a lot of responsibility in the playmaker position, with KIF Kolding København´s Bo Spellerberg as a potential back-up.
Despite these injury worries, Lars Christiansen does not see many alarming handicaps for the Danes.
"Of course, the absence of Nikolaj Markussen and maybe Rasmus Lauge makes the Danes a bit shorter on backcourt players, but they still have so many top players – from Niklas Landin in goal over the backcourt players to their wingers and line players – that they are still favourites in my opinion. They will probably only get in real trouble if Mikkel Hansen also sustains an injury," Christiansen admitted.
Denmark – a two-way team
He also sees the Danish team as a team who is just as good in the attack as in the defence and that adds to his optimism on his countrymen's behalf.
"I do not want to just stick to the usual phrases about the necessity of a good defence and a good goalkeeper in order to be successful. Denmark is a two-way team. They can play both ways and they play just as well in attack as in the defence. Although they will inevitably need a strong defence and good performances from Landin in goal, their attacking play can also bring them far,” said the 41-year-old.
"Defence and goalkeeper essential," says Bredsdorff-Larsen
Peter Bredsdorff-Larsen who was assistant national coach to Ulrik Wilbek from 2005 to 2012, tends to put a bit more focus on the defence than Lars Christiansen.
"Being defending European champions and being used to winning medals at major tournaments, Denmark are absolutely among the favourites, but a strong defence and great performances from Niklas Landin in goal will be essential to Danish success, not least as these factors are the basis for the fast-breaks which are one of Denmark´s strongest weapons," said Peter Bredsdorff-Larsen, now a TV commentator and from next season head coach by Danish league team Bjerringbro-Silkeborg.
He agrees with Lars Christiansen that missing Markussen and Lauge will not be fatal for Denmark.
"The absence of Nikolaj Markussen and maybe Rasmus Lauge may be felt, but Denmark still have enough quality attacking players to replace them, and neither of them is crucial to the defence, which adds to my point that the defensive part of Denmark´s play is the key to success,” concluded Bredsdorff-Larsen.
Denmark will play all their matches at the EHF EURO 2014 in Herning, where they meet FYR Macedonia, Austria and the Czech Republic in Group A of the Preliminary Round, while their possible opponents in Group 1 of the Main Round will be the three best teams from Group B which is played in Aalborg with Spain, Hungary, Norway and Iceland as the contenders.