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The Lions of Copenhagen – what Man Utd can expect from the Danes

It is finally time for Champions League football again as Manchester United take on the reigning Danish champions FC Copenhagen at Old Trafford on Tuesday evening.

The guests are coming to Manchester with the dream of causing an upset, but what can we expect from Copenhagen in this crucial fixture?

A Scandinavian Powerhouse

Rosenborg were the kings of the north in the 1990s, but this millennium has belonged to FC Copenhagen.

Built on a foundation laid by Roy Hodgson during his short stint in charge from 2000 to 2001, Copenhagen have established themselves as the powerhouse of Nordic football.

They have only missed out on the group stage of a European tournament twice in the last 16 years, and they are the club behind the biggest Nordic results in recent years, including a Europa League quarter-final in 2019/2020 and a Champions League round of 16 appearance in 2010/2011.

The Europa League quarter-final was the last time they met Man United, with the latter winning 1-0 after extra time.

Domestically, Copenhagen have won back-to-back Danish championships and they are currently leading the Superliga once again.

The Lions are operating with a budget incomparable to any other Nordic clubs which is fueled by their continuous European success and stability.

This is something no other Danish clubs have been able to come close to matching since Brøndby IF did it with Peter Schmeichel in goal before his move to Man United in 1991.

A season with ups and downs

On paper, it is difficult to find much wrong with Copenhagen’s season to date. They qualified for the group stage by defeating the champions of Iceland, Czech Republic and Poland, and they are leading the league.

They have started the group stage in an impressive manner with a 2-2 draw away against Galatasaray – a match which they deserved to win. They followed that game up with a narrow 2-1 defeat at home to Bayern Munich.

However, the reality is less perfect than what appears on the outside. Copenhagen have struggled domestically this season and been in big trouble against the better Superliga teams. They have lost at home twice to other top teams and have struggled on both ends of the pitch.

Copenhagen won by two goals or more just three times this season, and they also only kept three clean sheets.

They have the second-highest expected goals of the season according to stats from the official Superliga website, but only the fifth-highest scoring percentage.

Despite investing big money in strikers over the past years, they are still struggling in front of goal, and it causes their matches to be much closer than they should.

Defensively, they are also performing worse than their direct opponents with only being the fourth best in terms of expected goals against in the league.

This is not an impressive accomplishment considering Copenhagen operate with the largest budget in the country.

Part of the explanation for their issues is injuries. Club legend and Danish national team striker Andreas Cornelius, Copenhagen’s most expensive signing ever, keeps picking up one injury after another.

The club has been unable to find a replacement striker, and they are currently over-reliant on goals from midfielders such as Diogo Goncalves and Roony Bardghji.

Despite the size of the squad, Copenhagen are also struggling with how to balance both continental and domestic football.

The many matches are taking a toll on the squad, and as injuries keep piling up, the squad becomes increasingly depleted.

A dangerous opponent

Although Man United are massive favourites for this match, fans should be careful not to underestimate their opponents. Copenhagen are difficult opponents to break down.

They defeated Man United 1-0 at home in the Champions League in 2006 and drew with Manchester City, Sevilla and Dortmund in the group stage last season.

Copenhagen are still more or less operating in the 4-4-2 system Hodgson installed more than 20 years ago, and they are a physically and defensively skilled team. Their midfield is physical and hardworking, and their defenders are big and strong.

Former Lazio defender Denis Vavro is the heart of the defence that operates in front of goalkeeper Kamil Grabara, who joins Wolfsburg in January.

Copenhagen rarely gives easy goals away, and their players always seem to elevate the level when playing on the biggest stage.

Swedish national team player Viktor Claesson is the big star in midfield together with top scorer Goncalves. Both players should arguably be playing for bigger clubs, which they have done in the past.

Rasmus Falk, who played the match of his life the last time Copenhagen met United, is the leader in the midfield and a player to keep an eye on at all times.

So is 17-year-old wonderkid Bardghji. The young Swede is unlikely to start against United, but he has the ability to change the outcome of any match when coming on from the bench.

He is one of the biggest talents in Nordic football at the moment and could very well end up at a club of United’s size in a few years.

Copenhagen can boast a Scandinavian duo up front with Swedish international Jordan Larsson and Norwegian international Mohamed Elyounoussi.

Both players have experience from the biggest stage, with the latter spending two years at Southampton before joining Copenhagen this season.

Article by Toke Møller Theilade. Toke is a Danish writer focusing on Nordic football. He is the editor-in-chief at and has previously worked on stories with outlets such as The Blizzard, Moscow Times, BBC and The New Yorker.