On Tuesday night in a rain-soaked Veritas Stadium, Finland bounced back from a hefty defeat with a stunning performance and result, that in the end leaves the Huuhkajat just one win away from qualifying for a major tournament for the first time in our 108 year history.
Before the game Markku Kanerva made four changes from the side that started in Zenica. Sauli Väisänen and Joni Kauko came in for the injured Paulus Arajuuri and Tim Sparv while Lassi Lappalainen and Fredrik Jensen replaced Pyry Soiri and Jasse Tuominen. The visitors made one change from the side that drew with Liechtenstein Artak Grigoryan bolstering the midfield in place of Marcos Pizzeli.
Straight after kick off, many of the mistakes that had dogged Finland on Saturday were still prevalent, mistimed tackles from Jukka Raitala and Sauli Väisänen gave the visitors free-kicks in dangerous positions. In response, Finland looked to work the ball forward. Fredrik Jensen in particular linked play very well, and he flashed a low cross over the six yard box that Pukki just couldn’t reach on 7 minutes. Finland took a while to get into a rhythm and traded half chances with the visitors in the opening phase. After about 20 minutes though Finland upped their efforts and started to force a series of corners. Joni Kauko and Joona Toivio both went close while making a nuisance of themselves in the box. At the fifth corner in five minutes, Lassi Lappalainen whipped over a cross, Aram Hayraptyan flapped at it, and as the ball fell Jensen flicked the ball with the outside of his boot and into the top corner from five yards.
With Finland in the lead, the visitors looked to muster a response, but after settling early jitters Toivio and Väisänen looked composed at the back Glen Kamara was back to his usual self dropping back to disrupt the visitors and Robin Lod showed a good work ethic to get back and cover his full back. All in all, the energy and running power that had deserted the Huuhkajat four days ago returned. Once again it was a white shirt that was first to the loose ball, first in the scene to cover their teammate or to move into space. Hradecky had little to do, other than play nice one-twos with Kamara and Väisänen, the half drew to a close with more set pieces and half chances, Pukki from distance and Robin Lod firing a volley into the heels of Joona Toivio.
Finland started the second half in the ascendancy, controlling the ball well and letting Armenia chase the game. In a surprising move, Kanerva substituted Fredrik Jensen on 52 minutes, the Augsberg man still linking play well, and brought in Joel Pohjanpalo. Jolle’s impact was clear however, as he harried Armenian midfielders relentlessly. On 60 minutes Jolle won a header, shrugged off two opponents to control the ball and slid it forward, Teemu Pukki burned past Hayk Ishkhanyan took a touch and clipped the ball over the onrushing Hayraptyan and into the bulging net, for 2-0. The rain soaked Veritas stadium erupted and as the minutes ticked by Armenia began to visibly lose faith, as one wayward cross followed another. A raft of substitutions couldn’t change the course of the game for the visitors, who labored forward and were often pegged back by counter attacks. Both Lod and Pyry Soiri, who replaced Lasse Lappalainen, burst into the final third and hit crosses that just eluded Pohjanpalo. On 87 minutes, with the game wrapped up the industrious Kamara was replaced by Rasmus Schüller, the Minnesota midfielder’s first act was to put a ribbon on the win as he slid the ball in behind the Armenian defense. Pukki again alive to the chance took the ball forward steadied himself and scooped his shot over the ‘keeper for a second time, nestling the ball in the back of the net and earning his side a 3-0 win that was as comfortable as the score line suggests.
After the final whistle, the Veritas was ebullient and that mood would be lifted even higher in the hours that followed with Greece, upending the form guide to beat Bosnia Herzegovina 2-1 thanks to a late Adnan Kovacevic own goal. The pair of results leave Markku Kanerva’s men five points ahead of their rivals, with two games remaining. A win in Helsinki against Liechtenstein next month will send Finland to the first major tournament in our history.
In part the joyous mood comes from keeping an inferior opponent at arms’ length, but something else has happened in this Rivelution. On Saturday night Finland took a beating. Today, as a team Finland kept their emotions in check, stayed calm, endured the elements and showed a fighting spirit, backbone and endeavour that previous versions of the national team (from Muurinen onwards) were unable to find. In the past 20 years the Huuhkajat have looked to foreign coaches or systems to evolve their game, in Turku on Tuesday in the freezing cold rain there was something instinctively Finnish about the win. To take the beating, get back up and go again. If the Huuhkajat can do that just one more time, it will be the stuff of history.