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May 25, 2014

Atletico fail to follow Denmark's script

Denmark celebrate their success against Netherlands at Euro 92.
Denmark celebrate their success against Netherlands at Euro 92.
"I know exactly what Atletico Madrid players felt when Sergio Ramos scored the equaliser," John Jensen tells ESPN FC. There is little wonder -- Los Colchoneros' experience in the Champions League final versus Real Madrid on Saturday was remarkably similar to that of Jensen's and his Denmark team against the Netherlands the semifinals of Euro '92.

In both cases, the underdogs had a one-goal advantage at half-time, as Henrik Larsen (not to be confused with the Swedish legend Henrik Larsson) scored twice for the Danes to give them a 2-1 lead. Both put in an inspired performance and deserved to be in front but got more and more tired as the game drew to a close, conceded a very late goal and were forced to play the extra-time with injured players who couldn't be substituted.

Disaster first struck for the Danes after 70 minutes when Henrik Andersen, the marauding left-back who excelled at both ends and was the best player on the pitch, suffered a horrific knee injury. Its severity can't be compared to the knock that Filipe Luis took on Saturday, but the impact on the game was the same -- Atletico's brilliant Brazilian left-back, arguably their best performer on the night, was forced to leave the pitch. Just like Denmark, Atletico used their final substitution when he went off.

With just three minutes remaining at Ullevi stadium in Gothenburg, when the sensational place in the final was so near for the Danes, Frank Rijkaard made it 2-2. The despair was evident. "When that ball went in, we were certain that we are going to lose. We had absolutely no energy left, and the moral blow was very hard to take," Jensen remembers.

"We were exhausted. We played France in the crucial game at the group stage just five days prior to the semis, and it's similar to the title decider against Barcelona that Atletico had to play a week before the Champions League final," Lars Olsen, Denmark captain in 1992, tells ESPN FC.

Atletico's players could barely stay on their feet on Saturday after the Ramos goal, and that was the problem for the Danes 22 years ago as well. Both teams made a heroic effort to stop their rivals but that is extremely difficult, as former Arsenal midfielder Jensen explains. "When your opponents know that you have no energy left, they smell blood and feel that you are there for the taking. They get a significant psychological boost, and you are at a disadvantage both physically and mentally," the man known as "Faxe" says.

Juanfran, the Atletico right back, was injured at the beginning of extra-time but had to stay on the pitch, suffering from pain and unable to run properly. That's when Los Colchoneros paid the price for wasting their first substitute after nine minutes, because Diego Costa wanted to try to play at all costs despite being unfit.

"Grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference," the famous Serenity Prayer goes. The timing of his injury towards the end of the season was nothing short of tragic, but the striker clearly lacked the wisdom.

Coincidentally, it was Denmark's right back, John Sivebaek, who pulled a hamstring and was basically a passenger in extra-time. To make matters worse for the Danes, Olsen -- the leader of their defence -- also suffered an injury.

"I got sandwiched between two very big guys, Ruud Gullit and our keeper Peter Schmeichel, and hurt my hip," Olsen says. "I couldn't run properly -- maybe at 60 percent of my usual ability. Therefore, our coach, Richard Moller Nielsen, moved myself and Sivebaek into attack because we couldn't help at the back. John's injury was even more significant than mine, he could barely move. Our striker Flemming Povlsen took my place in defence and that's how we played for the last 20 minutes."

It must be noted that -- unlike the late Moller Nielsen -- Atletico coach Diego Simeone decided to keep Juanfran at his usual position, and that might have been a mistake, as Angel Di Maria ran riot and was responsible for the winning goal, scored by Gareth Bale.

"With John and Lars injured, we virtually played the best part of extra-time with nine men. As minutes passed, we knew one thing for sure -- we needed to get to penalties in order to stand a chance of progressing. It was absolutely impossible for us to score," Jensen stated.

Unlike Atletico, Denmark miraculously managed to hold on. "We had to take it easy and waste as much time as possible. It was important to be able to frequently return the ball to the goalkeeper, because the back pass wasn't outlawed yet," Olsen said.

Eventually, they won on penalties, when Schmeichel brilliantly saved one from Marco van Basten in the shootout, and went on to win the trophy, beating Germany 2-0 in the final. Both Olsen and Sivebaek recovered to take part in the triumph and Jensen was one of the biggest heroes, scoring a very rare personal goal.

Atletico weren't so lucky and Olsen, currently Faroe Islands national team coach, explained: "Football is much faster now. Every year the game becomes quicker and quicker, and players must always improve their shape. Injuries, fatigue and exhaustion are much more significant in our days than in the '90s. It is logical that Real made their physical advantage count, but that was tough on Atletico. They deserved to win because they were superior in the first 70 minutes."

Jensen agrees: "I felt sorry for Atletico. I thought they were the better team before Ramos scored, and they deserved to prevail. It was heartbreaking for them to concede such a late goal, and they had absolutely nothing left in the tank in extra-time. Memories of our game versus Holland crossed my mind."

The scripts were amazingly similar for Denmark and Atletico, but their endings were resoundingly different.