- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The game plan is basic, yet perfectly understandable.

And Denmark coach Age Hareide has no problem sharing it ahead of his team’s World Cup playoff against Ireland.

“When we get the ball,” he said, “the first thing we do is to look for Christian.”

Once again, Christian Eriksen is carrying the hopes of a nation as Denmark looks to qualify for its first major tournament since 2012. He’s used to it by now.

The international retirement of the Laudrup brothers, Michael and Brian, after the 1998 World Cup left a void in Danish soccer that wasn’t properly filled until the emergence of a slight, technically gifted playmaker who started making a name for himself in the Ajax youth team in 2008.

At that stage, Eriksen - still only 16 - was being talked up as a future star, having already had trials at AC Milan, Chelsea and Barcelona. He played his first game for Denmark in March 2010, was the youngest player at the World Cup a few months later, and within a year was the chief playmaker in Ajax’s title-winning team in the Dutch league. He was compared to Michael Laudrup by no less a figure than Ajax great Johan Cruyff.

Now at Tottenham and one of the most classy and consistent players in the Premier League, the 25-year-old Eriksen has made 73 appearances for his country. He could be one of the standout, most watchable players at next year’s World Cup in Russia - if Denmark makes it there.

“You always feel he will create chances and produce something special,” Hareide said. “So often a player like that, capable of extraordinary things, can be the difference when a match is very tight - especially against a team as well-organized as Ireland.”

Ireland’s coach agrees.

“He’s a player who makes Tottenham tick these days,” Martin O’Neill said, “and, in that position, he has developed into one of the best in the world.”

The first leg of the playoff is in Denmark on Saturday. The return leg is on Tuesday.

Eriksen started playing soccer when he was 3 at the Middelfart Boldklub on Denmark’s central island of Funen. He was so eager to attend training after school as he grew up that he wouldn’t get home until 8 p.m.

“I never wanted to be anything else but a football player,” he told the Politiken newspaper.

The move that would change his life, from Odense to Ajax, came in 2008 without Eriksen having played a first-team match. Such was his maturity at a young age that Eriksen preferred to stay in Dutch soccer, where his starts were more guaranteed and faith in young players was stronger, rather than chase bigger contracts in European powerhouses like England and Spain.

That was until 2013, when Eriksen joined Tottenham amid the club’s spending splurge following its world-record sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid.

Eriksen has really blossomed over the past two seasons, getting eight goals and 17 assists from the No. 10 position in that balanced, two-footed style of his. He is cherished by Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino because of his vision, his selflessness, his set-pieces and his tactical flexibility, even dropping into central midfield in recent games.

“Christian is a player that does not need too much the feedback of the fans, the media and the people outside,” Pochettino said of the player he nicknames “Golazo” (the Spanish word for a spectacular goal). “I like that a lot. He does not need to be recognized. He needs only to feel the love from us inside the club, and he does.”

Both of Eriksen’s appearances at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were as a substitute. He played at the European Championship in 2012 but wasn’t in good form as Denmark exited after the group stage with one win from three games.

Eriksen is now in the prime of his career, a “world-class star,” according to Hareide. He scored a team-high eight goals in qualifying.

“If he starts (thinking) a second before the others, he has the space no matter what,” the Denmark coach said. “That is how he’s unique.”

Ireland has been warned.


Associated Press writer Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this story.


Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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