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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Man City, beware: Copenhagen are Champions League upset experts

A little over four months ago, a dejected and disgruntled Manchester United team trudged off the field at FC Copenhagen‘s Parken Stadium having lost 4-3 to the Danish club in their UEFA Champions League group game. The home crowd was delighted, euphoric, but maybe not all that surprised. A fair few of them had, after all, seen this happen before.

Back in 2006, the club also known as FCK had qualified for the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history, and in just their second-ever home game they beat a Manchester United side that included Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. In charge of the team that night was Ståle Solbakken, who believes that early success set the tone for the years that followed.

“When we beat Manchester United 1-0, it became the start of what we called the ‘European nights’ at Parken,” Solbakken tells ESPN. “I think that the atmosphere that you have at Parken, during these games, has become self-reinforcing. So regardless of the team you’re facing, you have a belief that the crowd and the atmosphere and everyone will help you through it.”

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Over the years, the Copenhagen fans have become quite used to seeing players from the European elite leave Parken unhappy. Now, with reigning European champions Manchester City coming to town on Tuesday for the first leg of their round-of-16 tie, the Danes will be aiming to pull off their greatest feat yet: Stopping Pep Guardiola’s sky-blue winning machine. They’ll be written off by many, but FC Copenhagen’s European record at home is formidable. They’ve played 18 games at Parken in the Champions League in their history, and they’ve only lost two of them.

With the Champions League increasingly dominated by a handful of mega-wealthy clubs, FC Copenhagen are something of a throwback, a holdout from a time when European football was different. The Danes simply will not stop being a nuisance to any glamorous opponent UEFA throws in their path.

This season, they progressed from the group stage ahead of Manchester United and Turkish giants Galatasaray. They also managed a 0-0 draw at group winners Bayern Munich. But it’s at home, at the raucous Parken Stadium, where FC Copenhagen tend to unsettle the elite.

“I lost in 2013 against Real Madrid, and they lost against Bayern Munich this season,” says Solbakken, who racked up eight Danish league titles over two spells in charge of the club and is now the manager of the Norway national team. “But those are the only two defeats they’ve had. I think it’s a self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating thing. At its peak, I started thinking we were never going to lose in these games. That was when we held Barcelona.”

Not just any Barcelona, but Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. In November 2010 Guardiola went to Copenhagen with a team that had Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique at the back, a midfield of Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, and Lionel Messi and David Villa up front. It was a team that would go on to win a second Champions League in three years. A team that is regarded by many as the best club side of all time. But FC Copenhagen, representing the rather less illustrious Danish Superliga, held them to a 1-1 draw at Parken.

That heroic result, and the wins against Manchester United, are not outliers. During their various European adventures, FC Copenhagen have either beaten or drawn with clubs such as Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax, Benfica, Valencia, Sevilla, FC Porto, Celtic and, of course, Manchester City. When Guardiola’s men visited the Danish capital last season on their way to winning the treble, they were held to a 0-0 draw.

Though they’re underdogs in Europe, one of the reasons for the team’s success has been their refusal to play like it. Over the years, they’ve learned the importance of being able to keep possession and to try to play their own game, even against some of the biggest names on the continent.

“The FCK team that beat Manchester United back in 2006 had solid, Scandinavian players — and we played football accordingly,” Solbakken says. “Defensive organisation, set pieces, a lot of muscle. But as the team developed, we became better and better with the ball as well.”

Peter Christensen, the FC Copenhagen sporting director, believes the club’s positive results in Europe have given them the confidence to play more assertively.

“Of course we are the underdogs, but we decided to change the way we approach the games,” he tells ESPN. “We’re not waiting in a defensive 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, we’ve decided to have a go. We decided to have a more aggressive and more optimistic approach, and to play with more courage, even if we’re up against world-class players. The mindset changed because of our experiences as a club, and also the results. Because at home, we’ve been able to compete against anyone. That’s a massive factor.”

Being able to keep the ball is not just a matter of style or aesthetics, it’s a necessary tool to deploy in order to avoid being overrun.

“You do need to have a defensive base, because if you don’t have that you’re done,” Solbakken says. “But at the same time, the way football has developed, you can’t just defend for 90 minutes. Sometimes you must be able to take the sting out of the game, and just move the ball around a bit. So that the next time you regain possession you might have the energy to attack on the counter. I think this is underrated. And I think FCK have a tradition for it, that when the team has possession they understand when to hit the accelerator and when to keep the ball.”

Continuity and gradually building a club culture has been crucial. Of the current staff, head coach Jacob Neestrup was formerly on Solbakken’s staff along with his assistant, Stefan Madsen. Another member of the coaching staff, Hjalte Nørregaard, played in midfield when they beat Manchester United back in 2006. Rasmus Falk has been playing for FCK since they beat Club Brugge 4-0 and held Porto and Leicester City to 0-0 draws back in 2016.

FC Copenhagen was founded in 1992, when Kjøbenhavns Boldklub and Boldklubben 1903 merged. It was an ambitious club from the start, aiming for domestic success and European adventures. “The culture is different in Copenhagen to anywhere else,” Christensen says. “We have been really specific about what we want, even when the club was founded. You have to understand that mentality, you need to understand how things work both internally and externally, in terms of handling pressure and things like this.”

Head coach Neestrup was promoted from within having previously been in charge of the under-17s and then working as a first-team coach. Sporting director Christensen says was always confident about the 35-year-old’s ability to step up. “We were never in doubt when we had to appoint a new manager. He’s a young man with a great talent for coaching,” Christensen says. “We have a coach now who is really clear on what he wants, and who expects the best from the players. So high demands, definitely. But those are the same kinds of demands we have all through the club, from the staff all the way down to the under-15s.”

Former boss Solbakken believes this internal continuity is key. “One of the advantages FCK has is that you always have a few players who have experienced it before and who, along with the coaches, can pass that experience on,” he says. “So it becomes part of the culture of the club. Even if this is a massive challenge, they know it’s been done before. And it’s not just once or twice, it’s happened many times.”

FCK’s home support also helps. Sektion 12, the two-tiered stand behind one of the goals where the club’s ultras assemble, has a well-earned reputation for both generating noise and putting on striking displays before big games. Ahead of the 4-3 win over Manchester United in November, they unfurled a giant banner depicting a sleeping red devil and showing imagery from the 1-0 win back in 2006, and above it the words: “Your theatre of nightmares.” Neestrup also sparked headlines in the English media when he described the atmosphere at Parken as “100 times” more intense than what he experienced at Old Trafford. While that statement may have been bullish, the intensity of the noise and the atmosphere generated by the Copenhagen crowd is undeniable.

“[Neestrup] wanted to send a signal that we are used to playing in front of big noisy crowds,” Christensen says. “At home they are of course a massive support for us, they are like a 12th man on the pitch. What they’ve done and what they’ve created is massive. They create an environment for our team in which the players go on the pitch they know that the fans are able to carry us through some of it.”

These big European nights bring with them a different dynamic for both the crowd and the team. Yes, they are perpetual Champions League underdogs, but domestically they are the most financially powerful club in Scandinavia. They have used those resources to attract some of the most promising young players in the region like the match winner against United, 18-year-old Swedish winger Roony Bardghji. Always on the lookout for emerging Scandinavian talent, FC Copenhagen were one of the clubs trying to sign a 16-year-old Erling Haaland when he first left his hometown club of Bryne — but the striker opted to move to Molde, to learn from then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

In addition to attracting young Scandinavian talent, FC Copenhagen have also fleshed out the squad with Scandinavian players who have experience in bigger European leagues like Mohamed Elyounoussi (formerly of Southampton), Diogo Gonçalves (Benfica), Lukas Lerager (Genoa and Bordeaux), Nicolai Boilesen (Ajax), Andreas Cornelius (Atalanta) and Birger Meling (Rennes). The strategy is simple enough: trust the youngsters from the academy and from around Scandinavia, then add seasoned pros who can help them.

“This is a clear strategy,” Christensen says. “We’ve decided to put a lot of money into the academy, we have a really impressive staff there, who are experts at what they do. The quality and the talent is there. And then we get players in from big leagues with big CVs. That’s the mix we wanted and it’s played out really well so far.”

It’s proved a potent mix, and domestically expectations are high, but Solbakken believes playing these big European games can actually feel liberating for the players.

“In the Danish league you’re expected to win every single game, every day, every year,” he says. “But then in Europe, they get games where they have everything to gain. The crowd will always be behind us. I think you feel that in the entire stadium, that finally we’re the underdogs. That happens just a few times a year.”

The knockout phase of the Champions League is typically the preserve of the superrich clubs, but Christensen remains undaunted by the scale of the opposition.

“We don’t speak about budgets and how far we are from the other teams, because we think that’s just excuses,” he says. “We wouldn’t be able to do this if we didn’t have a style of play, if we didn’t have this incredible setup and had gained that experience over time. And if we didn’t have our fanbase doing everything they can on these European nights.”

Rarely, if ever, will they be bigger underdogs than against Manchester City. But FC Copenhagen will face them without fear, knowing that upsetting illustrious opponents is part of the club’s DNA. They will know that it’s been done before, so there is no reason to think it can’t be done again.

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