Plan B, falls short. #FINBIH, World Cup Qualifying, Group D, Game 1.
On Wednesday night Finland were held at home in an end-to-end 2-2 draw that saw the Huuhkajat concede a late equalizer to a Bosnia Herzegovina side that were high on energy but were mainly enabled by Finland’s tactics.
Finland opted to go with “Rive’s Plan B”, a back three which in addition to the expected Joona Toivio and Paulus Arajuuri also featured Jukka Raitala. Nikolai Alho and Niko Hämäläinen played in the wing-back positions while Glen Kamara, Joni Kauko and Onni Valakari took the centre mid positions, Robin Lod playing just off the shoulder of Teemu Pukki up top.
The opening exchanges appeared encouraging for the Finns, first Hämäläinen skipped away from three players to feed Pukki in behind Handzikanovic while minutes later Onni Valakari found space and threaded a through ball to Pukki in the box, ‘keeper Ibrahim Sehic came out quickly to deny on both occasions. As the visitors settled into the match though, they began to block and press in the middle of the pitch. On 20 minutes Nikolai Alho failed to clear inside the box and the resulting melee saw Joronen make a close range reaction save with Toivio and Arajuuri putting in last-ditch blocks. The visitors sensed the hesitation in defense and carved an opening minutes later. Raitala, not often deployed at center-back was caught in two minds to intercept the through ball or track his runner, he did neither and Miroslav Stefanovic got through one-on-one. Joronen sprinted out and blocked effectively in the nick of time. As the first half drew to a close there were chances at both ends, Finland should’ve broken the deadlock when Lod sent Pukki away, Sehic denying the Norwich striker and then Glen Kamara’s rebound shot.
Markku Kanerva decided to change things up at half time, replacing Onni Valakari with Rasmus Schüller, pushing Lod and Kauko a bit further forward. The change backfired though. Schüller failed to hold or move the ball centrally and the visitors began pressing towards the final third. After a succession of corners, some calamitous defending was punished. Alho again failed to deal with a cross pumping the ball up vertically, as it came down Jukka Raitala looked to nod the ball on, leading with his shoulder. The Greek referee whistled for a handball and a penalty, the offense was unclear to say the least, but the defending was clearly offensive. Miralem Pjanic stepped up Joronen parried but straight back to the Barcelona-bench-warmer, who tucked in the rebound.
The goal brought Finland to life and three minutes later Alho attacked down the right, cut inside and thundered a shot off the bar before Kauko muscled a header back across the box for Pukki to stab home the leveler. Both sides had their tails up but it looked like the visitors were more threatening as Pjanic whipped over a number of dangerous corners. Joel Pohjanpalo entered the fray initially to defend one heading it clear and then winning possession before releasing Pukki across the halfway line. The in-form forward burned past the fresh legs of substitute Haris Duljevic shimmied and finished low into the right hand corner of the net in classic style to put Finland into the lead.
As they had done for most of the second half, Bosnia & Herzegovina pressed high into the final third once again Finland struggled under the pressure and were punished for uncertain defending. Dzeko, who had been subdued for most of the contest nodded down a hopeful long ball on the edge of the box, Raitala reacted too late allowing Stefanovic to take a touch and steady himself before clipping a shot that took a deflection off Raitala and rolled just past the fingertips of Joronen into the bottom corner.
It was to be the last meaningful action of the game and was in hindsight a point that the visitors deserved having pressed high and controlled the midfield for much of the tie. For the Huuhkajat a 1-1 draw in Group D’s other game between France and Ukraine means no team really took an advantage but with Paris, L’viv and Sarajevo still on the itinerary this is very much two points dropped. We can’t ignore the impact of referee Sidiropoulos who made some rash calls, but tactically, Finland failed to find an effective route through or around their opponents press. The performances of Alho and Raitala were disappointing and the warning signs were ignored, while the introduction of Schüller was more effective for the visitors. Late introductions of Sparv and Pohjanpalo were encouraging, as we look to move on to a difficult Ukraine side these tactics need to adapt to the weak links exposed tonight, or more likely, it could very well be time for Rive to go back to plan A.