Denmark matchwinner Christian Eriksen deserves place among world's elite
Back in October 2014, then-Denmark boss Morten Olsen delivered the most stinging rebuke of Christian Eriksen's career. "We blame him. He must stand up to the criticism. It is a brutal world, otherwise you have to play at another level. It is not Ajax any more. This is not development," Olsen said after Eriksen had been anonymous in a 1-0 European Championship qualifying defeat to Portugal.
The game was won by Cristiano Ronaldo's goal in the fifth minute of stoppage-time and Olsen's implication was obvious: like Ronaldo, Eriksen was good enough and experienced enough to be deciding big matches. But he was not.
Three years on, Olsen's successor believes Eriksen now belongs with Ronaldo as one of the top 10 players on the planet, after his brilliant hat trick in the 5-1 playoff win against the Republic of Ireland sealed their place at the 2018 World Cup.
"It's difficult to rank, but we saw [in Tottenham's Champions League matches] against Real Madrid he is probably one of the best players in his position in Europe at the moment," said Denmark boss Age Hareide.
"Ronaldo, [Lionel] Messi and some strikers are playing as forwards. Christian is more a wide man or a central midfield player. He has this capability of scoring goals, making assists, finding space, so, definitely top 10."
Eriksen's exploits on Tuesday night naturally drew comparison with Messi. Just as the Barcelona superstar had scored a stunning hat trick in Argentina's must-win final CONMEBOL qualifier in the Ecuadorian altitude, so Eriksen did the same in Dublin. It is what the best players in the world do: they deliver when it matters. Olsen may have been brash but he knew what Eriksen was capable of.
Unlike Messi, it is not as if Eriksen saved his best until last, either. Denmark owed their playoff place to the Tottenham midfielder, who finished the qualifiers with 11 goals -- many of them stunners -- and three assists in 12 matches, making him the third top scorer in Europe behind Robert Lewandowski and Ronaldo.
Lewandowski dragged Poland to the top of the Danes' qualifying group; Gareth Bale hauled Wales into Euro 2016. Eriksen has single-handedly delivered Denmark to the World Cup, a stage on which he truly belongs.
Before this qualifying campaign, Olsen's attitude was not considered unfair in Denmark. Eriksen was named as the Danish player of the year three years running from 2013, losing his crown to Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel last year, and he has long been their best player. But it was widely considered that he did not do enough for his country and he was still someway from Michael Laudrup-levels of adulation. That is changing.
Eriksen has been playing first-team football since he was 16, with Ajax and now Tottenham, he has been a Denmark regular since he was 18. It is no wonder it feels like he has been around forever. He explained after Tuesday's match that he has "mentally grown-up" and, at the age of 25, has begun to adapt his game.
"I am taking more shots than passing. I am thinking more like a striker," he said, which sounds a lot like something Messi or Ronaldo might have said at the advent of their own stardom.
The unassuming playmaker deserves huge credit for finding another level, while Hareide and his club manager Mauricio Pochettino have been big factors in his rise. Eriksen explained this week that Pochettino has given him the stability at Spurs to simply focus on football. "You feel comfortable, you feel aware of everything around you and you don't think about anything other than football when you're on the pitch," he said.
Eriksen added that does not need or want the limelight but he will be in it in Russia whether he likes it or not. The next test for Eriksen is delivering at the World Cup, where he will be a marked man.
Hareide admitted that his performance at the Aviva Stadium owed a lot to Martin O'Neill's decision to play a midfield diamond -- "Thank you very much for giving him space," Hareide told the Ireland boss afterwards -- but in the first leg in Copenhagen, a 0-0 draw, Eriksen was well-shackled by the visitors.
At Tottenham, focusing on Eriksen would leave Harry Kane, Dele Alli and the rest free, but he is so clearly Denmark's biggest weapon and better opponents than O'Neill's men will have a special plan for him at next summer's finals.
Trying to deliver under that kind of scrutiny will be huge challenge. But then that's what the very best players do.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.