After the same old story that was the gut-wrenchingly disappointing 1-0 home defeat to France a month ago, Mixu Paatelainen’s Finland are at a watershed: anything but a victory against Georgia today would spell the premature end of the 2014 World Cup campaign and cast serious doubt on the whole Euro 2016 project.
Call me a defeatist doom-monger if you will, but after more than a year and a half into the Paatelainen era, Mixu has had enough time to build his team and create a strategy that suits the players at his disposal. These two vital factors in team development have been done, finished, and the course has been set towards France 2016.
The current campaign has never been about qualifying for the actual tournament in Brazil; it has always been about laying down a comprehensive foundation for Euro 2016 qualification. Since the team and the strategy have now been set in stone (for better or for worse, but I’d still like to think that for the better), the only thing left to do is to start winning points and make the Olympic Stadium a fortress.
In normal circumstances, I’d shun the thought of putting a strict delivery deadline for a coach’s work, but this is no normal situation. When there is a concrete goal set for a project, it should not be unreasonable to demand a concrete schedule for delivering the results either. Therefore, in order to make the 2016 dream a reality, there inevitable comes a time when talk has to translate into performance on the pitch and performance into victories. And the time is, like it or not, now.
Worst possible group, best possible fixture list
Finland had the misfortune not only to be drawn into the most difficult group in Europe, but also to the only one with just five teams (as opposed to six in all other groups). Five teams means eight games played in total of which four are played at home. Spelling the bleeding obvious, I know, but this is to explicitly show that in a group where fewer matches are played the significance of home games becomes even more pronounced.
On the other hand, if the draw was merciless for Finland, they could hardly have hoped for a more forgiving fixture list. Looking at the match schedule before the start of the campaign, Finland could breathe easily knowing that they were able to start the qualifiers with two home games. The France and Georgia matches offered a perfect buffer before the third outing in Spain, from where there will be no points forthcoming. Therefore, Finland could rest assured that they could travel to Madrid without too much pressure. This, however, applies only on the condition that there are some points in the bag when travelling there.
The opening game against a France side that were seeped in turmoil should have provided a perfect opportunity to make a statement right at the beginning of the campaign. But Finland missed the cue and now they are in for a must win match against Georgia. After all, the prospect of having no points after three matches, no matter who you play against, is unbearable.
Progress measured with points, not with performance
Anyone who has ever played football, or any other competitive sport for that matter, knows that it is more difficult to break a bad spell of results than maintain good form. When you are winning games and confidence is high, even an occasional defeat won’t disrupt the momentum. In contrast, when you trudge from one defeat to the next (no matter how well you play), to even scrape one measly victory becomes harder with every setback.
In Football being competent in winning is determined as much by a psychological capability as it is by the quality of football played. You may be rubbish for ninety minutes but in the end come out with a 1-0 win. The often heard saying that it is a sign of a good team to be able to win with a bad performance communicates exactly this notion. In other words, you have to know how to win in order to actually pull it off.
There isn’t a switch you can simply flip to start winning games; there has to be a winning mentality, an inbuilt resilience and refusal to accept defeat. And this mental background hardly ever, and never with a team of Finland’s quality, is enforced through an idealistic approach to tactics (this subject was discussed at length here so there’s no need to elaborate). Rather, it is a combination of being able to play good football (i.e. the right kind of football for the team), being mentally adamant and being intelligent. Of course, with the burden of the history of defeat Finnish players carry, it is no simple task to learn how to win. Nevertheless, it has to start sometime, and the first step should be to internalise a mentality and start using rhetoric that only the result matters. A victory is three points. Defeat is nothing.
If Finland lose, or even draw, on Friday, the result will of course show unfavourably in the points total. But even more significantly it will strike a devastating mental blow: if Finland can’t beat Georgia at home, how on earth are they able to beat anyone away. It is make or break time.