Danish football's Lazarus man standing on the edge of greatness

When you’ve literally come back from the dead, it puts football in perspective. So FC Copenhagen coach Stale Solbakken will not have been unduly perturbed by the jostling with Pep Guardiola after the Danish and Spanish champions drew 1-1 in Copenhagen.

Guardiola was angry with Solbakken for saying that Barcelona keeper Jorge Manuel Pinto (who imitated the referee’s whistle in the first leg) ought to have been banned for five games, not two. Guardiola accused his rival of manipulating the media. Solbakken replied: “It was just a Norwegian making a terrible joke.”

Having interviewed Solbakken last time his side were in the UEFA Champions League – they came third in Group F in 2006/07 – I can understand Guardiola’s confusion. Even when discussing his own ‘resurrection’ – he had a heart attack during training on 13 March 2001 and was pronounced clinically dead before his heart started beating again in the ambulance twelve minutes later – he was hard to read, so matter of fact he could have been analysing a minor tactical innovation.

Solbakken: Not afraid of Kazan, Barca or death...

Detachment, it was clear, did not signify lack of determination. Still only 42, Solbakken has now won the Danish title twice as a player and four times as a coach. A fifth title – with the Lions 16 points clear halfway through the season – seems a formality.

In 2006/07, he steered Copenhagen to their first ever Champions League group stage. The Lions roared at home – taking seven points out of nine – but lost every away game. This time, they need a point in Rubin Kazan this week or, failing that, an eminently achievable home win against Panathinaikos to secure their first ever place in the last 16. That would be the best run by a Danish side in this competition since Brondby made the last eight in 1986/87.Denmark’s dynamite shortage

This is all the more remarkable because as Marcellus, a sentinel in Hamlet, very nearly said, something is rotten in the state of Danish football.

Dennis Rommedahl, the consistently inconsistent winger who is now at Olympiacos, has just been voted Danish footballer of the year. Super League attendances – probably partly because of the Lions’ dominance  and the national side’s travails – are down 24% this season. After a dire, dull, dour World Cup, the Danes may miss out on Euro 2012 (they face Portugal and Norway in Group H) at which point national coach Morten Olsen, linchpin of the legendary Danish Dynamite side, will retire.

Though no emerging Danish players have the explosive talent of the Laudrups, much hope – and hype – has focused on the slender frame of Christian Eriksen, the Ajax midfielder who became the youngest player ever to feature in a World Cup finals this summer. It’s worth noting that only five of the 13 players Solbakken fielded against Barcelona on matchday four were Danish.

Whatever happens, national service beckons for the Copenhagen coach. If the Norwegians don’t make it to Poland and the Ukraine, he will replace Egil Olsen as Norway coach in January 2012. If Norway do qualify, Solbakken will take over from Olsen after the Euro 2012 finals.

Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen

He will be missed at FC Copenhagen. Under Solbakken, the Lions have become the strongest Scandinavian side in European competition. No supporter will ever forget their 1-0 win over Manchester United, 3-1 rout of Celtic or that feisty draw against Barcelona in which Victor Valdes, at fault for the equaliser, did his Toni Schumacher impersonation.

Solbakken’s strategy of pressing Barcelona out of their stride – the footballing equivalent of Corporal Jones’s “They don’t like it up ‘em” in Dads Army – just about worked. His players were stubborn, resilient and intelligent. Though Barcelona dominated possession as usual, both sides could easily have scored the winner. One Barca supporter was impressed enough to suggest that if the Lions were in la Liga they would “finish in the top half for sure”.

Twenty five scouts from foreign clubs swelled the crowd at the atmospheric, compact Parken stadium. Defenders Oscar Wendt and Mathias ‘Zanka’ Jorgensen, midfielders Martin Vingaard and William Kvist and striker Damien N’Doye are the most prized players. Yet the renaissance of 33-year-old Jesper Gronkjaer, long regarded as the very definition of the stereotypically tricky but erratic midfielder, may be Solbakken’s biggest achievement.

Copenhagen has been chiefly famous for exorbitant bar prices, fairytales and Danny Kaye, as Hans Christian Andersen, singing “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen”. Solbakken’s Lions have made Copenhagen one of the capitals of European football. The team’s results may earn the Danish champions an automatic place in the Champions League group stage in 2011/2012. If they do make this season's knockout round, they will be the underdog everyone wants to avoid.

This could be the greatest ever season for club and coach. Football is certainly not a matter of life and death for Solbakken. He just reckons his near death experience has made him more focused. And his focus right now is on winning.