Finland 1-2 Italy
On Sunday evening Finland produced a rousing performance against a slick Italy side but ultimately left empty-handed after Scottish referee Bobby Madden gifted a harsh penalty to the visitors.
Markku Kanerva set up his side as he did in Udine in a 5-4-1 formation hoping to absorb Italy’s forward pressure with Sauli Väisänen accompanying Joona Toivio and Paulus Arajuuri in the centre of defense. Rasmus Schüller was brought in to replace the suspended Tim Sparv, Albin Granlund came in at right back replacing Jukka Raitala while Lasse Lappalainen was preferred over Pyry Soiri. The Italians lined up with a narrow 4-3-3, and though full of champions league level players, was one of the youngest Italy sides in modern history.
The game started at breakneck speed, Italy hit the front foot in the opening minutes pressing quickly at Finland’s final third and winning a free-kick wide on the edge of the box. The cross was handled well, Finland countered and forced a corner. Robin Lod whipped it in from the right, Väisänen nodded on at the near post and Joona Toivio at full stretch looped the ball over Gini Donnarumma’s goal from three yards out. All in the space of three opening minutes.
Minutes later with another counter attack in the offing Teemu Pukki burned past Emerson on the flank, cut back inside only for Glen Kamara to have his through ball cut out at the last minute. Emerson limped off with a ham string strain to be replaced by Alessandro Florenzi.
For the opening 20 minutes or so, the 5-4-1 worked as intended, leaving little space for Italy to work in and allowing space for a counter attack, Finland were both holding their own and probing well. Glenn Kamara on 25 minutes had a lovely chance picking up the ball in the middle of the park and running at the Italian defense, but got caught between good options with Pukki in space and a shot on, he was closed down trying to decide. Italy however soon upped the tempo and on 27 minutes it took an unbelievable full stretch save from Hradecky, captain for the night, from Stefano Sensi’s powerful volley to keep things level. Italy took heart from that chance and finished the half visibly the stronger side. Their pressing game forced errors for Rasmus Schüller and Joona Toivio when in possession. Down the left hand side Jere Uronen had done a good job at keeping a leash on Frederico Chiesa but Florenzi, Pellegrini and Immobile each had half chances drifting between Albin Granlund, Joona Toivio and Schüller on the right flank. At half time it just looked a matter of time before Italy would capitalize.
For the start of the second half Finland once again pressed forward, forging a chance as Robin Lod fed the ball to Pukki, who uncharacteristically dragged his shot wide. Italy weathered the mini-storm however and began again pressing forward. On 59 minutes they found their breakthrough, Chiesa deciding not to take on Uronen and instead pumping in a cross, Paulus Arajuuri got the slightest of touches, taking the ball over Joona Toivio and square onto the forehead of Ciro Immobile, who planted his header firmly into the top corner.
Finland’s response was impressive. Lod and Kamara covering a lot of ground in the middle of the park and linking the play well. Uronen and Granlund offered good support down the flanks but still without reinforcements Schüller struggled to find his feet and Lappalainen, who had started the game well, seemed to run out of gas. Finland still fought their way back and on 72 minutes Lod threaded Pukki in down the right flank. With four Italian defenders between him and the goal and no support, Pukki elected to cut inside and weave his way into the box, where the backtracking Sensi bundled over the Norwich forward. After some theatrics from Donnarumma who was booked for his troubles Pukki then smashed his penalty straight down the middle sending the Milan ‘keeper to his left and bringing the Ratina to its raucous feet.
The joy would last only 6 minutes. As Italy restarted, changing personnel up top the visitors managed to fashion a couple of half chances at goal. On 79 minutes the Italians broke once again down the right flank, Pellegrini cut the ball back inside where Nicolo Baletti blasted a shot that Sauli Väisänen blocked from a yard away. The ball struck Väisänen’s arm which was both below shoulder height and covering his torso. But in as little time as Sauli had to react Scottish referee Bobby Madden awarded a second penalty of the night and a booking. No consultation, no thinking time as is recommended these days, just another ringing endorsement for VAR. Chelsea’s Jorginho stepped up and slotted his penalty expertly into the bottom right corner, Hradecky guessing right but not getting down in time.
With 10 minutes left Kanerva opted for change of style, Pyry Soiri replaced Granlund and the Huuhkajat switched to a 4-4-2, then belatedly on 87 minutes Schüller was replaced by Joni Kauko. It was all in the end for naught, Italy closed the game out with eight players constantly behind the ball, theatrical play-acting and time wasting.
At the start of the day Armenia had done both Italy and Finland a favor by beating Bosnia-Herzegovina 4-2 at home, that result plus this win means Italy are now essentially guaranteed to qualify. Finland for their part were a worthy adversary but in a game of fine margins, the little things just didn’t break our way. Some of them were out of Huuhkaja control, Paulus Arajuuri’s flick for the opener, the Scottish ref’s inexplicable decision for the second are just bad slices of luck. Others though, choosing the 5-4-1 or sticking with Rasmus Schüller in the middle of the pitch for 87 minutes were marginal calls Finland got to make for themselves. There’s no shame in a 2-1 defeat, to what is an exhilarating Italy side and the Huuhkajat have everything in their own hands as they travel to Sarajevo in a month from now. The general feeling matching out of the rain-soaked Ratina is that if just one of those marginal calls goes our way, we will make history.