Kevin De Bruyne sends Belgium into last 16 with victory over brave Denmark

Kevin De Bruyne came off the bench to supercharge Belgium, who weathered a Denmark onslaught to secure victory in a stirring encounter that had Christian Eriksen as its focal point.

The emotion in Copenhagen understandably and rightly hung heavy in the air, coating every element of proceedings prior to kick off.

A rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone filtered through all ends of Parken, sung for Eriksen who suffered cardiac arrest on Saturday night and was resuscitated after “being gone,” as Denmark’s doctor Morten Boesen put it.

This encounter, the first since Kasper Hjulmand’s men were forced to complete their fixture against Finland despite being heavily traumatised by such a distressing situation, was always going to be about the Dane lucky to be alive.

As both sets of players primed to walk out, a giant “Eriksen No10” shirt was unfurled on the pitch.

It had already been decided that the teams would halt pay in the 10th minute as a tribute to the midfielder, which was a touching moment. Eriksen could probably hear the collective applause from his hospital bed just 400 meters away, such was its zeal.

But the real salute to the 29-year-old came in the form of his side’s high-octane performance in the first half. The intensity with which Denmark started the match was astounding, pressing Belgium in a manner that most teams would shun.

Having matched the world’s No.1 ranked team by going with three at the back, the hosts then played them off the park.

The reward for their bravery came rapidly, with Jason Denayer being forced into an error and sloppily passing straight to Pierre-Emile Hoijbjerg. The Tottenham midfielder picked out Youssef Poulsen, who finished wonderfully to stun Belgium.

That was only the beginning of the blitz, with Roberto Martinez’s men supremely fortunate not to enter the break 3-0 down.

Thibaut Courtois had to be sharp to thwart Joakim Maehle, with Daniel Wass having another chance immediately after.

Belgium were not so much chasing shadows, but being completely swamped by them.

Denmark had nine shots in the first half, eight of them coming inside the box, while limiting their opponents to just a sole attempt.

The worry was whether they could sustain their verve and aggression in the face of Belgium’s quality that stretched to the bench and if they’d regret not converting more of their excellent openings.

Once De Bruyne ended the pitch, that was only going to be answered in the affirmative.

The Manchester City maestro came on after the break for his first appearance since suffering facial fractures in the Champions League final.

Having not been able to decide that encounter, he won this one. De Bruyne’s arrival enlivened Romelu Lukaku and when he motored beyond the Danish defence before pulling the ball back for the midfielder, there looked to be only one eventuality.

A trio of markers tried to impede De Bruyne, but he causally spread the ball across the face of the six-yard box as a welcome gift that Thorgan Hazard took.

It was a supreme team goal that would be added to. Axel Witsel and Eden Hazard were thrown on to compound Denmark’s concerns as Belgium upped the offensive ante.

The pair were involved in the build-up for the winner, with Lukaku’s drive and intelligent movement paving the way for De Bruyne to dispatch a low rocket past Kasper Schmeichel.

It was beautiful football that was gutting for Denmark, but it did not relinquish their fight. They pushed in the closing stages, with Martin Braithwaite connecting with the woodwork, but could not get an equaliser over the line.

Still, their bravery and front-foot approach to honour Eriksen felt like victory on a wider level than a football result.

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