One step at a time
On Tuesday night Markku Kanerva’s Huuhkajat won their third match in Group J and moved five points ahead of Greece and Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the pitch there were one or two nervous moments but the end result never really looked in any serious doubt.
Before the match Kanerva promised to make changes and gave Benjamin Källman and Lassi Lappalainen their first real chance in a significant game and Jukka Raitala came into the starting line up for the injured Albin Granlund. The home side set up with a 4-5-1, with two banks sitting deep.
The game started slowly, Finland tried moving the ball around, poking around for holes through Liechtenstein’s parked bus. The first real chance arrived for the home side when Lukas Hradecky misjudged a long ball, as it spun off the turf and over the ‘keeper, luckily Joona Toivio was on hand to tidy up. In response, Pukki, Lod and Sparv all fired in shots from around the area, though they were mainly practice shots for ‘keeper Thomas Hobi. Hradecky was properly tested on 12 minutes when Marcel Büchel whipped a free-kick from 25 yards, Luke plucking the ball out of the top corner just in time. Dennis Salanovic also spurned a glorious chance on 25 minutes as the FC Thun man dragged his shot the wrong side of the post from 8 yards. Liechtenstein’s opportunities were partly due to how many men Finland threw forward. Jere Uronen had the ball in the back of the net on 32 minutes, but was flagged offside in a close call. Joona Toivio went close from one of half a dozen corners and shots began raining down on the home side’s goal. On 37 minutes, Robin Lod managed to waltz through the hosts’ back line and square the ball to man of the moment Teemu Pukki who was left with possibly the easiest tap in of all his goals to date. The goal was Teemu’s 18th for his country. After the goal Finland returned to their attacks and just before half time Tim Sparv had a shot cleared off the line with his side looking to put the game to bed.
In the second half, Liechtenstein made a change, veteran Michele Polverino coming on in place of Sandro Wieser, thought tactically it seemed to have little impact. Salanovic was once again involved after the break as he was set free after great work by Nicolas Hasler, and then in a one-on-one Salanovic knocked the ball wide. Minutes later the game was all but over. Lassi Lappalainen took control of the ball on the edge of his own box, fourteen seconds and three defenders later, he was cutting the ball back inside the opposition box to Bejamin Källman, the young forward backheeling his effort in to double the Huuhkaja lead. The traveling fans echoed around the stadium and the home side wilted. The second goal, Källman’s first senior goal arrived on 59 minutes and although the Huuhkajat continued to make chances, both teams took their foot of the gas, both looking relatively comfortable. As the clock ran down, Liechtenstein looked happy with a respectable score line Finland happy that the job was once again done.
In September, Finland have a pair of home games against Greece and Italy. The Greeks arrive in an “all or nothing” situation, Italy arrive with one foot already at the Euro 2020 tournament. The Huuhkajat will be confident of taking points from both of those games. In so many ways Finland have made quiet incremental improvements. Lukas Hradecky and his stable back four have now kept 10 clean sheets in the last 15 games, Glen Kamara and Tim Sparv have controlled the midfield effortlessly against most opposition and on the bench Finland have multiple young alternatives each capable of hurting opponents. Teemu Pukki is heading to the Premier League and, at 29, will be confident that there are more goals to come in white and blue, he is now Finland’s fifth all-time top scorer. The win in Liechtenstein was yet another example of a small quiet improvement, one small step, closer to a major tournament.