Finland 1-0 Republic of Ireland
On Wednesday night a resilient and combative Ireland side left the Olympic stadium empty-handed after two simple mistakes were punished by a sharper Finland side.
Markku Kanerva started with his 4-4-2 a side that made just three changes to the one that defeated Bulgaria. Albin Granlund came in for Jukka Raitala at right back, Pyry Soiri came in for Ilmari Niskanen down the right wing Fredrik Jensen replaced Joel Pohjanpalo up top.
As Bulgaria had done at the weekend the visiting Irish started on the front foot and pressed Finland deep into their own final third. Though this pressure only materialized into chances via set pieces, with the back four and Paulus Arajuuri in particular in commanding form. In response Finland crafted two chances of note on the break away, both falling to Teemu Pukki. First, fancy footwork from Pyry Soiri sent Pukki in behind but he dragged his shot wide from the angle of the six yard box. The second was a marauding run from the halfway line that ended in a low powerful shot that nestled in the side netting.
Soiri was unlucky to be replaced at half time for Ilmari Niskanen, though this may have been because Soiri’s positioning, though threatening more often than not, brought Albin Granlund a little too far forward for comfort. Ireland continued to press in the second half at one stage, Glen Kamara was forced into some Cruyff turns inside his own box to clear the danger, and Pukki regularly popped up at the back trying to pick up the ball. With half chances being spurned at either end it was ultimately a mistake or two that led to the goal. Darren Randolph’s hurried clearance was intercepted by Pukki on the edge of the box, he beat Matt Doherty for pace before sliding the ball across the box. Fredrik Jensen tapped a shot at goal that bounced of Randolph and onto Dara O’Shea’s head, the debutant could only nod it back to Jensen who hammered home from five yards.
For the final part of the game, as is customary under Kanerva, the Huuhkajat decided to shut up shop, bring five into midfield and bring in fresh legs. Five subs in all left the defensive minded Sparv, Schüller and Joni Kauko sitting in front of the back four, with Paulus Arajuuri smashing anything that came near Finland’s area. The true hero for Finland was, however, between the sticks. Often called upon to handle persistent crosses from the visitors, he shone on the 80th minute tipping a looping header from Ronan Curtis just over the bar and then pulling off heroics, with a “Banks -vs- Pele” style save to deny Aaron Connolly at the back post, as the clock ticked down.
As Finland have developed a habit of doing, they held on to their slender lead for the win. Up until the mistake, the visitors had effectively disrupted Kanerva’s plans and had solved many of the problems we had caused on our away trip. Glen Kamara was unusually boxed in, the overlapping play down the flanks was often shut down, and Robert Taylor and Soiri had to resort to trickery rather than pace to make any headway, often finding themselves crowded out. Finland however held the upper hand in two ways. First, in concentration, across the pitch everyone did their job and when gifted a chance, we were sharp enough to capitalize. More importantly, however, both Soiri and Kamara played very well individually, but their play though creative had the tendency to pull Finland‘a shape apart, particularly once possession was lost. “Rive” acted on both of these and adapted his system when the Irish began throwing caution to the wind, and it worked to good effect, with the visitors creating very little from open play. On the surface it may have seemed as though the Gods were with us on this one but, underneath the victory, there was more than just luck and Luke.