World Cup Qualifying, Group D, Game 6
On Tuesday night Markku Kanerva and Finland got back to their feet after Saturday night’s knockdown, to show Finland’s fans that there’s still life, and a few tricks, in the old dog yet, as they took on Kazakhstan at the Astana Arena.
In a stronger than expected reaction to Saturday night, Rive made a total of five changes to the starting line up and set up in an attacking 4-3-1-2, with Lod tucking in behind Pukkk and Pohjanpalo, a midfield three of Nissilä, Schüller and Kamara with Albin Granlund, Nico Hämäläinen and Robert Ivanov joining Leo Väisänen at the back, Lukas Hradecky wore the armband between the sticks.
The opening 25 minutes or so were rather scrappy. Unusually, the home side opted to press aggressively putting the experimental system under a bit of pressure early on. Both sides had flashes at goal with no real chance being created. As the half wore on though, Finland became more comfortable and started to use the press against their opponents passing around or through them almost at will. On 30 minutes, Finland, or more pointedly Joel Pohjanpalo, received a blow. Potentially breaking his nose when competing for header with a Kazakh defender, the accidental collision forcing an early substitution for the visitors.
With Fredrik Jensen on in place of Jolle, Finland started building chances, first Lod from distance then Pukki having a shot blocked and the clearest falling to Albin Granlund, as Lod cut the ball back for the advancing full back who just drew his shot too much with the goal gaping. Minutes later, he applied all of his composure to drive a Hämäläinen cross toward goal on the volley, with ‘keeper Igor Shatskiy completely beaten the ball thundered back off the cross bar. Chances started to rain in thick and fast and as the clock ticked over the 45 minute mark Robin Lod lifted the ball over two defenders Pukki turned, holding off his marker and planted a finish into the bottom corner. It was a wonderfully worked move, typical of Pukki and Lod, which made it all the more fitting the goal was Teemu’s 32nd goal for Finland taking him level with Jari Litmanen’s all time record.
Minutes later, into the third minute of stoppage time, Teme thought he’d broken the record, slipped through by Nissilä, he beat the offside trap, shot, saw the keeper save and tucked in the rebound, only to be brought back for a highly dubious offside in the build up. Pukki didn’t need to wait long, the Huuhkajat started well in the second half and when Shatskiy parried Nissilä’s 20 yard curler, Teme was on hand to poke home his record breaking 33rd goal for Finland and put the tie beyond any doubt.
What followed were 35 minutes of fluid football, where Finland looked composed and controlled and created multiple further chances. Nissilä, unmarked, 8 yards out decided to try and feed Pukki; Jensen and Lod worked the keeper from distance on multiple occasions; Pukki also had a couple of chances for a hat-trick, the best when racing from the halfway line on 74 minutes before he pulled up with cramp on the edge of the box. Pukki and Granlund were replaced by Onni Valakari and Jukka Raitala and the chances kept coming. The best of which fell to Fredrik Jensen at the death, when great build up play left him one-on-one from close range but he blasted the ball high into the stands.
With history made for Finland’s new all time top goalscorer and a win secured there is general relief in the Finland camp. Some unnerving questions had been raised by the defeat to Ukraine and this fresh approach seemed to prove that in our coach and squad, at least, there are more alternatives than previously thought and no small amount of invention. At the full time whistle, Finland sit third level on points with Ukraine (in the play-off spot) two points ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With two games left this isn’t the worst possible position and it remains a tough group.
That said the win and the creative alternatives seemed to arrive one game too late in this campaign, with the Huuhkajat giving themselves a hill to climb in order to progress. Upcoming games against Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, and at home to the World Champions is a hell of a hard way to do things.
For this evening though, let’s just appreciate the composed finishing of Teemu Pukki (and by no small measure the passing accuracy of Robin Lod, with his contribution) and his fast reactions that took him to the top of Finland’s goalscoring charts, about 40 games faster that the King himself. Well done Teemu, here’s to many more!