SOCHI, Russia: Denmark playmaker Christian Eriksen was a callow teenager mostly confined to the bench at his first World Cup in South Africa, but eight years later he will carry his country’s hopes on his shoulders as they kick off against Peru on Saturday.
Making their return to the World Cup finals after a 36-year absence, the South Americans will provide a stern test for Age Hareide’s Denmark side, and with France installed as Group C favourites, neither team will want to drop points at this early stage.
Having missed out on the finals in Brazil in 2014, Tottenham Hotspur’s Eriksen has developed into the complete playmaker for club and country, and it was his hat-trick in a stunning 5-1 playoff demolition of Ireland that secured Denmark’s berth at the World Cup.
The Irish managed to keep him under wraps in the away leg in Copenhagen, but in Dublin he ran riot with a man-of-the-match performance.
He topped the scoring charts in qualifying for Denmark with 11 goals. While he is surrounded by attacking talent for the national team, it is the 26-year-old Tottenham man that keeps Denmark ticking over.
He reinforced his importance in the run-up to Russia as the Danes failed to find the net against Sweden while he was at home awaiting the birth of his first child.
On his return, he scored one goal and made another in a 2-0 win over Mexico that served as a dress rehearsal for their World Cup opener.
Under Norwegian coach Hareide, Denmark have become more direct, preferring to move the ball up the field quickly and establish their attack from there, rather than passing it out from the back as they did under Morten Olsen.
The rugged style of centre back pairing Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen served them well against the Irish.
They will face a similar physical challenge from Peru captain Paolo Guerrero, who was cleared to play at the World Cup when a Swiss court agreed to temporarily lift his doping suspension.
Despite their underdog status, the Peruvians are endowed with plenty of pace and skill and looked dangerous on the break in their World Cup warmup against Sweden.
With France up next, Peru will need to shackle the irrepressible Eriksen and get a good result against Australia if they are to have any chance of progressing.
Yet keeping Eriksen under wraps at his second World Cup may be easier said than done.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Toby Davis)