Huuhkajat go down swinging as World Cup dream ends
On Tuesday night Finland’s World Cup qualifying hopes came to an end, as current world champions France bided their time and picked Finland off, as results elsewhere forced Markku Kanerva’s hand.
Kanerva made two changes to the side that started in Bosnia at the weekend, Jere Uronen came in at an unusual right back slot for the injured Jukka Raitala, while Urho Nissilä came in for Marcus Forss. The French made several changes from the side that thrashed Kazakhstan, though still started with Greizman and Mbappe up top.
The visitors had the lions share of possession in the opening half, though rarely threatened, as Finland kept their defensive shape tight. Efforts from distance from Diaby and Pukki at either end were well handled and, as they had against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Finland proved to be very capable on the ball of diffusing the French high press.
Finland got into half time at 0-0, with the game in Bosnia also at a goalless stalemate. Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard replaced the injured Leo Dubois, at the start of the second half, and Finland inexplicably began to press the visitors, enjoying posession and creating chances, the most notable for Jere Uronen, cutting in from the right. With Finland in the ascendancy, two events changed the course of the tie, Oleksanr Zinchenko scored for Ukraine, meaning Finland needed a score draw to progress, and subsequently Rive brought off Rasmus Schüller for the more attacking Marcus Forss. Schüller had been excellent again in the middle of the pitch, his departure allowed France to counter-attack quickly through Finland. On 66 minutes they capitalised, substitute Karim Benzema played a lovely one-two with Mbappe in the box but his low shot deflected of Leo Väisänen and over Hradecky and in. Deflections aside, Finland were also unable to catch any luck from Italian referee Marco Guida, who consistently gave the benefit of the doubt to the visitors. Needing a goal to qualify, Rive threw the kitchen sink at France, bringing on Pohjanpalo, Taylor and Valakari in place of Uronen, O’Shaughnessy and Nissilä. On 76 minutes, the world champions pounced to seal the tie. A sloppy pass in midfield was exploited and Mbappe was released, he sped past Väisänen and thumped his shot into the far corner. In looking to push the visitors, one deflection and one misplaced pass were punished by Real Madrid and PSG’s finest. Finland carried on regardless and were not lacking in effort nor quality. All things being equal, France would have found a sturdy test in Helsinki, but needing goals, the Huuhkajat were doomed to go down swinging.
At the final whistle a capacity crowd were disappointed but not despondent, in full voice and were proud of the effort shown. As the Huuhkajat completed a lap of honour it became clear how quickly the game can change, with 65 minutes on the clock the dreams of a first world cup appearance were on the cards, 30 minutes later, as Joona Toivio and Paulus Arajuuri grabbed the megaphone to sing with fans, there was a stark realisation that the changing of the guard, for them, was complete. Finland will go again, in new campaigns, but many of the heroes that were made in during the Rivelution ended their service tonight.
They too would’ve been proud of how it was contested, with a new generation coming through there is much still to look forward to and much more to be thankful for.