World Cup Qualifying Group D, Game 5.
On Saturday evening, Markku Kanerva’s Finland were dealt a near fatal blow by a stubborn Ukraine side, reducing the odds of their World Cup Qualification to “comical”.
Both Kanerva and visiting manager Oleksandr Petrakov set up with the same approach as the reverse fixture, with more familiar options Jukka Raitala and Thomas Lam replacing the injured Jere Uronen and Tim Sparv.
Lam’s inclusion raised some eyebrows ahead of kick-off, given he was only recently added to the squad, and those concerns were justified in the opening exchanges. Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko dropping the shoulder and sidestepping Lam on the edge of the box before curling a shot into the bottom corner to put the visitors into the lead. Lam’s tendency to play backwards, coupled with Ukraine’s tight midfield shape, left Finland pumping long balls forward. There were a few sights at goal for the home side, but Ukraine also looked dangerous on the counter finding space in front of our defensive three and in behind out wing-backs.
After a period of decent pressure Finland managed to draw level. A well worked corner resulted in Joel Pohjanpalo powering a header at goal, this was tipped onto the post and as the visitors scrambled to clear, Teemu Pukki put in a timely block that saw the ball rebound straight into the net. The goal buoyed the home support but the cheers didn’t last long, as within five minutes the hosts were back in front. They worked the ball quickly on the counter down the left, Tymchyk cut the ball back into the box, and Tsygankov was surprised to find himself unmarked. His shot bobbled forward to Roman Yaremchuk who took a touch and placed his finish, past the stranded Hradecky, from the edge of the six yard box.
As the first half drew to a close the visitors sat back into a tight defensive block, slowed down the play, drew fouls and generally frustrated Finland. At the interval it was clear to the 30,000 strong crowd that change was needed.
Unfortunately, the home side kept their powder dry while Ukraine made some small alterations to the their style. Pressing from the front three, the visitors ensured that Finland’s defenders could keep the ball, but any one of Lod, Kamara, Raitala or Alho were crowded out as soon as they got the ball. This left the home side punting long balls and fighting for the scraps. Every now and then, the Huuhkajat were able to craft passes together but the banks of three defenders and four defensive midfielders clogged the path to goal time and again.
Finland’s best second half chances came from set pieces, Urho Nissilä (on as a 60th minute sub) smashed over from 25 yards, while Robin Lod drew a sharp save from Pyatov only for Paulus Arajuuri to shank the rebound over the bar from 3 yards. The visitors still posed a threat, darting down the flanks and shooting from distance, but as the game wore on they became less adventurous. The introduction of Ilmari Niskanen and Roope Riski on 78 minutes did offer flashes of hope, the latter linking up with Lod and Hämäläinen to create chances, but crucially not with Pukki. As the officials held up 6 minutes of stoppage time, though, Finland had thrown Arajuuri up as a makeshift target man but were otherwise bereft of ideas. As the final whistle blew Niskanen and Kamara were exchanging tidy passes just inside the opposition half, looking competent in possession but not really moving forward, and that summed up the game for the home side.
World Cup Qualifying – Group D
With a home defeat cementing a difficult night, both Ukraine and Bosnia-Herzegovina move ahead of Finland in group D, making Tuesday’s clash with Kazakhstan more about the wooden spoon than the pot. The result also leaves many questions about the future of this group. True, Lam was brought in as the 4th choice defensive midfielder after injuries to Tim Sparv and Kaan Kairinen and the suspension of Rasmus Schüller, but that Sparv-shaped hole needs a long term replacement or two. Joona Toivio and Jukka Raitala also showed their age and there are still questions about Robin Lod’s role in this system, his forward positioning adding pressure to Kamara and Lam to build the game through the middle.
The system itself and Finland’s inability to make tactical changes against teams looking to frustrate us, is also an issue we’ve had for a while. Pukki’s industriousness got him one goal closer to Jari Litmanen’s record, Nissilä again looked keen and comfortable on the ball, but the number of players growing into this team does seem to be smaller than those that may need to be replaced. In the immediate term, Kanerva will need a reaction in Astana next Tuesday, many questions still remain around this group, the greatest of which is, has the Rivelution run its course?