Match Preview: Ukraine (h)

World Cup Qualifying Group D, Game 5

On Saturday evening Finland will host a difficult Ukraine side at the Olympiastadion in a match which will likely be a pivotal moment in the course of the current World Cup Qualifying campaign. Level on points, Finland trail Ukrain on goal difference in 3rd place in the group, with a game in hand. A victory against Oleksandr Petrakov’s side would make the Huuhkajat favorites at a play-off spot and within touching distance of Group leaders France, defeat, would hand the advantage to both Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina, who will be busy toiling in the fields of Astana. Kick off in Helsinki is 19:00 local time, the Palloliitto are expecting the largest crowd in recent memory with over 30,000 tickets sold heading into the game.

Squad: Markku Kanerva has a decent injury list heading into this tie. Captain Tim Sparv, Jere Uronen, Daniel O’Shaughnessy, Sauli Väisänen, Kaan Kairinen and Marcus Forss are all out injured, Pyry Soiri and Joni Kauko didn’t make it due to lacking match sharpness and Rasmus Schüller (who is in the squad) will be suspended. Experienced trio Juhani Ojala, Albin Granlund and Robin Lod return however, providing a timely boost, while Ilmari Niskanen is back after hitting the ground running in Dundee and there is also a return to action for Veikkausliiga golden boot Roope Riski. On the eve of the tie Markku Kanerva said:

It remains to be seen whether we play in the center of a two- or three-man midfield. We have enough good options for that. The team has internalized the style of play well. Everyone knows their role. We also have the ability to adapt our formation during the game.

There will certainly be some names on the team sheet already. Lod will feature either wide or linking midfield to attack as he did at the Euros, in either role Glen Kamara won’t be far behind him. Joel Pohjanpalo and Teemu Pukki will both start, Luke in goal, obviously with Paulus Arajuuri and Joona Toivio at the back. Given the quality and aggression Ukraine tend to play with, it may suit Finland more to go with the back five, that did an effective job nullifying Ukraine in Kiev back in March, something that was hinted in Rive’s closing statements:

Hopefully the taps will open properly as we get going and hopefully that’s early on tomorrow. The more chances we create, the higher the probability of goals. But it’s always a kind of balance when it comes to defensive and offensive play. The balance must be in order.”

Visitors: The Blue & Yellow arrive in Helsinki in somewhat maddening form. Having played the French home and away they are yet to lose and yet having played Kazakhstan home and away they’re still to win. What’s more after 5 years and being widely recognized as having taken the team out of the dark ages, Andriy Schevchenko left the post after the most successful Euros campaign in the country’s history. In stepped Petrakov, appointed on an interim basis having guided Ukraine’s U-20 side to World Cup victory back in 2019. Aside from that though Petrakov has little experience outside of the Ukranian FA. This will be his 4th game, following on from draws against Kazakhstan, France and Czech Republic in a friendly. Arriving in Helsinki Ukraine are without goalkeeper Denys Boyko, defender Vitaliy Mykolenko, midfielders Vitaliy Buyalski, Oleksandr Zinchenko (Man City) and Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta) and goalscorer from the reverse fixture Junior Moraes. Even with that list, the visitors still boast a formidable threat, the likes of Benfica forward Roman Yaremchuk, attacking midfielders Oleksandr Zubkov, Teras Stepanenko and Mykola Shaparenko are familiar with life in the champions league handle the ball well and can shoot from distance, captain Anriy Yarmolenko is also no stranger to long-distance pile-drivers. The weakness for the visitors will be defensively, where they are not blessed with pace and between the sticks they’ll need to choose between the uncapped Dmytro Riznyk, 37 year old Andiy Pyatov (one cap away from his hundredth) or the often error-prone Heorhiy Bushchan. Kanerva commented:

Ukraine will certainly go looking for the win – they have not got one yet. Admittedly, they’ve also not lost. During the game, their press level will definitely change. We’ve been through it. One of our areas of development is how to get through the press against tough teams

Expect a tight 3-4-3 formation that can drop into a 5-4-1 when the press is off, and can also pile forward as a unit.

Previous: Last time out an 89th minute Teemu Pukki penalty cancelled out Junior Morales’ opener in a game that had been light on chances and excitement. This will be only the fourth time these two teams have met, Finland still looking for their first win.

P:3, W:0, D:1, L:2, GF:2, GA:4

Referee: Jesus Gil, (Spain) La Liga and Champs League level whistler only 37 but very highly regarded in the game. He spent his summer reffing in the Copa America, and Finland fans may remember him as the fella who sent off Jere Uronen as Wales went on to win the Nations League group decider in November 2020, painful game, fair call.

Broadcast: Live on Nelonen in Finland, Studio kicking off at 18:30 (FinnTime), also broadcast on Ruutu (subscription required).

FFS Predicts:

Mark H – Win and we’re odds on favorites, lose and we’re pretty much out of it… I smell a draw, which is something Ukraine are by now famous for. I’ll be at the game with the massive crowd so 2-2, thriller.

Mark W – My thoughts are not as affected by Finland’s enforced changes, as our friends on the Ukraine football podcast were. Players missing from the Finnish defence have perfectly able replacements. There won’t be loads of goals but now is the time to strike a claim for that second place spot… Finland 2-1 Ukraine.

Keke – While the other FFS hosts and I are all planning to be at the final Group game against France next month this is really the game to be at. The biggest crowd for a Finland game in recent memory will urge the side on. Schüller is a big miss in the centre but with Robin Lod back hopefully we can create the passes needed to unlock the Ukraine defence. Yarmolenko is always a threat so our wing backs will need to keep their eyes on their defensive duties. I’m going for a goal each for Pukki and Jolle but I can see Ukraine scoring one. I’m saying 2-1 Huuhkajat. Oi Suomi Oi.

Rich – Ukraine are currently on a record run of draws and can’t afford to lose, this is the pivotal game in the race for the playoffs. While it’s not a team in the greatest form, it seems like the sort of stage where Teemu Pukki’s resurrection begins. With Finland needing to get a result, I see a 1-1.

Oppo view: @ZoryaLondonsk, Ordinarily we’d have gone with a 1-1 draw, but looking at Finland’s injury list, we now fancy to nick it, 2-1 to Ukraine!

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