Five days before Christian Eriksen arrived at Brentford, Thomas Frank predicted he could be the club's "greatest signing." Frank hadn't yet seen him train, but the Brentford manager -- who coached Eriksen when he was with Denmark's Under-17s -- certainly knew he could transform the Bees' season. Since Eriksen made his debut for Brentford on Feb. 26 as a second-half substitute, he has done just that.
Before Eriksen joined, the club was just three points above the relegation zone. Since then, the Bees have won three of the four matches he has featured in, with him missing their defeat at Leicester due to testing positive for COVID-19.
Looking purely at the numbers, they were going at a rate of 0.44 points per game in 2022 before Eriksen played; since his debut it's been 2.25 points per match in his four appearances, including Brentford's remarkable 4-1 win at Chelsea on Saturday. Eriksen was superb, scoring his first goal for the club but also orchestrating a huge upset.
After the match, Frank was in the depths of Stamford Bridge talking to the media. He was processing the magnitude of the win, talking up Vitaly Janelt's performance, the defensive stability and the work rate of Ivan Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, but Eriksen was the star act.
With Eriksen's contract up in the summer after a six-month deal at Brentford, Frank has already spoken of his hope of keeping Eriksen in west London. But with this fairy-tale story adding new chapters, Frank knows Eriksen will be attracting plenty of interest around Europe. "I know I'll have to answer these questions through to the end of the season, so let's see," Frank said. "To be fair, I know Christian quite well, and one thing he's good at is just enjoying the moment."
At Brentford, they talk about the previous match for only 24 hours after it's finished. Then they reset. Thoughts of where Eriksen will be next season are at the back of Brentford's mind, but for the moment, they're reaping the benefits. The player they've got back is the one who lit up the Premier League, Serie A and the international stage. There's even a school of thought that he's better than ever.
Eriksen's first day at Brentford training was Feb. 8. He knew the Danish contingent of Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard well from national duty. Both were in Denmark's squad for the Euros and were there at Parken on June 12, the day Eriksen had his cardiac arrest and was "gone from this world" for five minutes, as he put it. Jensen even replaced Eriksen in that match.
There have been various milestones in Eriksen's remarkable recovery. A few days after he collapsed in Parken, he had an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) fitted. Then he started running, and later he'd start kicking a ball again. He knew he had unfinished business in the game.
He trained with his old youth side, Odense Boldklub, at the start of December, but his long-term future was uncertain. He was officially still an Inter Milan player, but Serie A rules prohibited him from continuing to play in the league due to having the ICD. His departure was confirmed on Dec. 17, and clubs outside Italy naturally took notice. At the start of the January transfer window, he trained with Jong Ajax, the club he joined in 2008 and played for until 2013, when he joined Tottenham.
He was also setting his sights on featuring for Denmark at Qatar 2022.
"I want to play," Eriksen said. "That's been my mindset all along. It's a goal, a dream. Whether I'll be picked is another thing. But it's my dream to come back. I'm sure I can because I don't feel any different. Physically, I'm back in top shape. My heart is not an obstacle."
Eriksen needed minutes. Frank had kept a close eye on him, knowing a player of Eriksen's ability could transform Brentford's season. After being linked with the midfielder, they confirmed Eriksen's signing on Jan. 31, the final day of the transfer window.
In his first news conference, Eriksen tried to draw a line under the trauma of the seven months post-Euros, focusing firmly on the future instead. He said that he was in "better condition" and that there was no reason he couldn't get back to the same level. "The football touch is something of course you get in games, but of course to get there is still a few more weeks," Eriksen said.
He was presented to the fans before Brentford's Premier League match with Crystal Palace on Feb. 12 and played two behind-closed-doors games, contributing three assists.
"With time, it is definitely going to be about the football and not the guy who did something last summer," Eriksen said. "It will be about the next game, and people will say 'he can't pass the ball' or 'he can pass the ball', 'he missed this big chance', 'he is bad', and so on. I can't wait to go back to that. I want to show that I am still the same player as before."
Eriksen made his Premier League debut off the bench against Newcastle on Feb. 26. Newcastle won 2-0 before Eriksen went the full 90 minutes at Norwich, playing a key role in two of Brentford's three goals in a 3-1 victory.
But the most memorable moment of the match involved a tackle. Norwich's Brandon Williams tussled with Eriksen for a loose ball, sending the pair falling to the floor. Williams was momentarily riled by it, but quickly realised who the player underneath him was. "I was going to hold him, but then I know what he's been through and it's incredible what he's done and he's back now," Williams said. "It was something special for him to be back on the pitch for himself and to be involved in that [game]; I felt he needed a hug."
With a first Brentford win under Eriksen's belt, the players around him were feeling the benefits of having him at the club. Captain Pontus Jansson said having Eriksen on the pitch helped the other players "grow," adding: "everyone likes and loves him, and it helps us to have him here.
"We are so happy that he can play football, first of all. He is such a nice guy and character -- and he is a superstar, if you can say that, but he is one of us."
Next up on the list of Brentford achievements was Eriksen's first Premier League assist, which came in an essential 2-0 win over Burnley on March 12. Brentford had lacked the quality and composure in the final third to turn territory into chances. Having struggled for 85 minutes, Eriksen measured a perfect cross to the far post for Toney to head home. He then threaded a neat through-ball for Toney to run on to, which ended up with Nathan Collins bringing him down for a penalty Toney promptly converted.
Afterwards, Toney -- who has scored five goals in two games with Eriksen starting -- said having the Danish midfielder in the team meant he had to stay "focused" at all times to be ready for any moment of "quality" to pounce on. "I can't thank him enough for being in the squad and helping us," Toney said.
From here, there was one milestone left: returning to the Danish national team. Eriksen made his international return on March 26 in Amsterdam against the Netherlands, nine months after he suffered the cardiac arrest, and he needed just two minutes to score, hitting a beautiful, arching first-time shot off Andreas Skov Olsen's cross. Later on, he hit the post. "You have to be careful what you say, but he was almost better than ever," Denmark defender Jannik Vestergaard said.
"To start the comeback in international football like this was the perfect way," Eriksen said. "I'm looking forward to playing at the Qatar World Cup, but there are a lot of games in between and I'm focused on them." He even posted on Instagram: "Can't say how much I've missed this feeling."
Against Serbia at Parken, the ground where he collapsed last June, Eriksen scored a wonderful goal and was captain for the day. "It's not the final chapter; it's just the beginning of the football career that continues," he said. "It was a bit of a break for a few months, now it's getting the football back on track."
For Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand, who was there back in June and again in March to see Eriksen's homecoming, it was a special moment. "He is so clarified and calm in everything he does," Hjulmand said. "He just enjoys himself. I'm sure we can get something even better out of Christian."
When Eriksen returned to Brentford after his international duty, Frank half-joked that he wanted him to take those goals from Denmark and do the same for his club. So, in Brentford's 4-1 win over Chelsea, Eriksen managed to control the tempo of the match despite having N'Golo Kante marking him. He showcased the full range of his skills: there was one beautifully weighted pass after six minutes, and then his first goal for Brentford proved to be the winner.
Eriksen saw Mbeumo turn Hakim Ziyech on the halfway line and sprinted with him to offer an option. His movement helped him drift from Chelsea's defenders; Mbeumo's pinpoint pass found Eriksen unmarked in the middle of the box, and he dinked it over Edouard Mendy for his first Brentford goal. Mendy was hurt in the process; Eriksen paused celebrations to check on the goalkeeper.
A look at his range of touches postmatch had the feel of an all-court display. His 88 touches covered the length and breadth of Stamford Bridge. He blocked balls in defence, won others in the air and was the calm presence in the middle, looking for the ambitious balls at times and at others just slowing things down.
"Christian is a top player; it's an ongoing fairy tale, and I'm very pleased of course for that," Frank said. "What he brings to the team in terms of ability on the ball, calmness... we can always give it to Christian and he will find a solution, plus he will always provide goals or assists and what he gives to the team with his personality.
"I think any footballer would like to play with even better footballers because that raises their level, and Eriksen's quality and his ability sometimes just to find the safe pass and then the killer pass -- that's something any team will benefit from."
Other teams are taking notice. Tottenham boss Antonio Conte was asked after their win over Newcastle about whether they'd try to tempt Eriksen back. "To come back here would be a good opportunity for him, for me, for the club, but now he's signed for Brentford, only six months, and we'll see what happens."
Frank says contract discussions with Eriksen will step up at the end of the season but with seven matches left, they are looking to keep their distance from the bottom of the league. "It's an ongoing fairy tale," Frank said at Stamford Bridge.
It's as if he's never been away. With Qatar 2022 looming on the horizon, Eriksen will be back in the thick of it for Denmark, controlling the tempo and causing all sorts of difficulty for the opposition.
"The last few months and weeks have been emotional and pleasing for me to be back playing, to score my first goal at Stamford Bridge," Eriksen said after the win at Chelsea. "Everything has been pretty positive, it's been heart-warming to be here. Really everyone has been happy with me and I'm very happy to be here."