On Wednesday night Finland put an experimental and young team up against World Cup winners France, in Paris and walked away with an impressive 2-0 win.
The French side, was predominantly made up of squad players, though still boasted a host of star players, such as Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud and Kurt Zouma, Man Utd’s Paul Pogba and Barcelona’s Clement Lenglet. On the other side Markku Kanerva handed debuts to Brantford’s Marcus Forss and Pafos’ (Cyprus) Onni Valakari. Aside from the new lads, the team was much the same as the one schooled by Poland 5-1 a month ago, so expectations were not high.
In the opening exchanges Finland kept the ball well but the home side gradually began to find their rythym. In particular the right flank pairing of Marcus Thuram and Lucas Digne caused no end of problems for Ilmari Niskanen, who was operating as the right sided wing-back. Thuram enjoyed a trio of clear cut chances, first striking the bar with a thumping header, then flashing a shot over the bar when left unmarked inside the box and finally wriggling into the box before fizzing his shot straight at Jesse Joronen. France began to increase the pressure and pen Finland in, but on 28 minutes Rasmus Schüller applied a bit of pressure to Moussa Sissoko in the centre circle, the Spurs man turned straight into Rasmus Karjalainen who nicked the ball of him and sent you long Forss away shoulder to shoulder against Lenglet. Forss kept his pace and balance and clipped a shot over Steve Mandanda and into the net.
At the restart, France once again looked to pile forward, but within minutes the visitors had doubled their lead. Joni Kauko shrugged off Pogba, not for the first or last time of the night, advanced and clipped the ball right to Valakari. The youngster brought the ball down and from about 25 yards curled an absolute screamer into the top corner. Finland needed to weather a bit of a storm but as time wore on, the French midfield of Pogba and N’Zonzi seemed to lose cohesion and heart as Schüller, Kauko and Valakari, often supported by the covering Karjalainen clogged up the middle of the pitch. The second half began with Finland on the front foot and Kauko drawing a fantastic save from Mandanda at his near post after some industrious harrying from Schüller. As the game wore on the French brought in the big guns, Greizman, Ngolo Kante, Anthony Martial and Rafael Varane all introduced to add quality and delivery, but none of which were able to find a way around Finland’s low block. Chances were few and far between but France were unable to sustain pressure for long periods as Finland were able to keep the ball and their composure for extended periods. Arajuuri and Toivio were introduced as Leo Väisänen and Juhani Ojala picked up little knocks, while Pukki, Kamara, Nikolai Alho and Robert Taylor we’re all introduced to break up the flow of the game and give Finland fresh legs. France were never truly out of the game, but at the same time, they didn’t up the pressure to really concern the back three.
A month on from a heavy defeat in Gdańsk it’s interesting to see how two or three small changes have a massive impact. Finland tonight were a little tougher at the back, Väisänen in particular handled the physical battle. In midfield Rasmus Schüller had probably his best game in a Finland shirt, and his passing with Valakari’s close control really allowed Finland to take the pressure off the back line. Up top, Marcus Forss spent his debut chasing down bling alleys alone, but crucially, when the one chance of the night fell his way he burned past a Barca defender like he wasn’t there and finished with aplomb.
As preparation for Bulgaria, the France game seemed a bit out of place, but if the games against Finland and Wales go in our favor, Finland will be looking at promotion to League A, European football’s top table, with that in mind this kind of preparation shows that at the moment, Finland would not look out of place up there.