Finland 2-0 Bulgaria – Nations League B, Group 4
On Sunday night Markku Kanerva returned to his “Plan A” Huuhkajat set up and saw off a tricky Bulgaria side with relative ease.
For their part, the visiting Bulgaria side did threaten some disruption most notably in the first five minutes of either half with a targeted high press and attacking style. After their initial hi tempo start the visitors regularly relied on sitting deep and hitting on the counter. This afforded Finland a great deal of time on the ball in the first half. This was used to great effect only occasionally, as long balls forward from the back were often misdirected. The industrious Ilmari Niskanen was a constant threat down the right. On 15 minutes he cut inside and laid the ball off to Tim Sparv who fed a cute ball into the area for Robert Taylor to smash low, drawing a good save from Bulgarian keeper, Martin Lukov. Minutes later Niskanen was again the provider from the right, slipping in Teemu Pukki in the box. The Norwich striker took a touch and shot low but Lukov was once again equal to it. Both teams were able to hit on the counter but, as the half closed, neither could find the needed quality in the final third.
The second “five-minute storm” from the visitors, saw Joona Toivio screw a clearance straight at his own goalkeeper, Hradecky, from close range and a couple of crosses just eluding Bulgarian forward Dimitar Iliev. Eventually, the home side calmed down the play and began to link up. As soon as they did this, Finland was able to pick apart their opponents. Toivio finally hit an accurate long ball to Uronen, who lifted a looping cross toward the back post. Joel Pohjanpalo nodded it down, and Teemu Pukki, snatching at his shot, sent the ball bobbling across the six-yard area where Robert Taylor pounced to poke home. Finland in general, but Glen Kamara and Tim Sparv in particular, were then able to set the tempo in midfield, just after the hour mark Fredrik Jensen replaced Joel Pohjanpalo and history repeated itself. As he had done against Ireland in September, Jensen found the back of the net just moments after arriving. Uronen took a throw-in from the left and found Jensen who ambled inside the box, shielding the ball from Vasil Bohzikov, until he arrived near the “D”, at which point he snapped a low shot that caught Lukov off guard. The keeper got a hand to it, but the ball nestled into the bottom corner for 2-0. The remaining half-hour saw the visitors commit men forward, and Finland break with pace, especially after the introduction of Pyry Soiri. In the end, though, the Huuhkajat looked comfortable, while the visitors just didn’t have the finishing touch.
So a 2-0 win against weaker opposition, with a small but vocal home crowd back in the nation’s capital. It’s perhaps important to remember where this team was when we last played in the Olympiastadion, struggling against teams like Liechtenstein and Kosovo. The fact that we can put a game like this to bed, was not always so expected. An additional boost also comes from the dugout. After experimenting with three at the back, a full-strength defence and midfield saw Kanerva pragmatically revert to a trusted system, that looks all the more effective now that Niskanen and Taylor can carry the ball with pace down the flanks. Kanerva now has a wealth of options tactically and technically. Next up, Finland host an Ireland side who have a manager that is already under fire, but who will likely offer a sterner test than they did in Dublin. A home win and Finland will be knocking on the door of League A, the top tier of international football in Europe, not to mention a FIFA ranking that might land us as a top seed for the next round of qualification. A lot has changed since we last sat in the Olympiastadion and long may it continue, with games like this one, simply routine.