By Philip O'Connor
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Denmark fans will be left wondering what might have been after their side neutralised Croatia in the last 16 on Sunday but went out on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
Led by goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, the Danes disarmed Croatia completely and looked the better side over the 120 minutes of play but once again failed to find the delicate balance between defence and attack.
"It was a great team effort, and great spirit that made us get here," coach Age Hareide told reporters. "This feeling of togetherness we have developed, we must take forward."
Schmeichel stopped a penalty from Luka Modric in extra time and saved two more in the shootout but it was not enough, and fans will question whether the cautious approach favoured by Hareide is the right one for Denmark.
The gruff Norwegian is known for turning underdogs into hard-to-beat sides by making their defences rock solid.
But while this approach has worked for the likes of Sweden and Iceland, it arguably weakens a Danish team full of creative, talented players who grew up under Morten Olsen, Hareide's predecessor.
Olsen favoured a much more attacking approach, and the balance Denmark seeks lies somewhere between the cavalier and conservative.
Many Danes were horrified by the long balls out of defence which the side adopted when Hareide took over but having performed poorly under Olsen at the 2010 tournament and missing out in 2014 altogether the style worked for them in the qualifiers.
They scored a 1-0 victory over Peru in their Group C opener in Russia before battling to a 1-1 draw with Australia and then an instantly forgettable 0-0 stalemate with France that ensured their progression.
They are capable of more, though.
The Danes have one of the best playmakers in the world in Christian Eriksen as well as an array of attacking options in Pione Sisto, Yussuf Poulsen, Nicolai Jorgensen and Andreas Cornelius.
Hareide's task now is to try to get the best out of his attacking talent without comprising on defensive solidity.
Whatever the tactics, the positive messages emerging from the Danish dressing room in the wake of the Croatia defeat suggests Hareide and his players still believe in each other and will continue trying to get the balance right.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)