Finland seem to have turned a corner. After the low-point of drawing at home to Georgia roughly a year ago, Finland have recorded four victories and two draws, while conceding only four goals, from seven official matches.
The most obvious turning point to the chronic case of poor results was, of course, the 1-1 draw at Spain. Although, ‘the Miracle of Gijon’ was a spectacular achievement and a heroic story fit to boost the ever veining confidence of the whole football nation, its significance is more down to providing another, and perhaps the greatest, unforgettable story into the folklore of Finnish football. The matches, however, that best represent the actual progress made by ‘Huuhkajat’ are the home and away fixtures against Belarus, an opposition that is of comparable level to Finland. Winning the former and drawing the latter are exactly the sort of results Finnish football needs to go forward.
Although results are what matter the most, fortunately there have been a number of other positive signs of progress as well. First of all, Finland have played fairly balanced football: the defence looks solid (a fact which is backed by the goal average after the aforementioned Georgia match) and there is a much clearer sense of urgency and precision to attacking. The perfect example of Finland’s clinical attacking play is the equalizer scored by Teemu Pukki in Gijon. The goal came after a quick exchange of passes through the middle, accompanied by a dynamic forward push, which was followed by a timely cross from the left channel that Pukki expertly struck home after having left the Spanish defence stumbling in his wake.
Another important sign of progress is that the leading players are finally fulfilling their potential: namely Niklas Moisander in defence, Roman Eremenko and Perparim Hetemaj in midfield, and Pukki in attack. Almost equally important though is that, while the star performers have upped their game, the rank and file have been reliable when called upon. It has often been said in this blog that Finland do not need a new Jari Litmanen but rather plenty of versatile professionals who play regularly in decent enough leagues. This has become evident in recent qualifying matches as squad players like Markus Halsti (Malmö IF, SWE), Joona Toivio (Molde, NOR) and Jarkko Hurme (TPS, FIN) have successfully covered for injured starting players. The epitome of the type is, naturally, Kari Arkivuo who has become a Finland mainstay at right full-back. After having made a decent if unspectacular career in Norway and Holland, the 30-year-old is currently playing for Swedish club BK Häcken, which is far from the glitz of top European football.
No Pukki. No Party!
The role of Pukki is one other vital factor in Finland’s development. The former Schalke forward, who transferred to Celtic earlier this week, has been a household name in Finland ever since he scored the three glorious goals for HJK in the Europa League qualifiers against Schalke in 2011 (here, here and here). The goals earned the young striker a transfer to the very same German giant, but after a bright start to life in Germany (despite limited playing time), Pukki found himself in the role of a fringe player. And as always happens with Finnish people whenever someone doesn’t become a huge hit abroad (and mind, we are talking about becoming a huge hit in one of the biggest clubs in Bundesliga), no time is wasted in telling what a failure the player is. At the same time as Pukki’s playing time diminished, the naysayers sharpened their knives in pointing out to the limitations in his game.
There are limitations, of course, but more importantly Pukki provides qualities that are indispensable to Finland’s success. Firstly, Pukki is the only player in the squad who comes even close to being a natural top-level goalscorer. Despite taking his time in starting to score in the Finland shirt (and regardless of still keeping the fans waiting for his inaugural goal at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium), he has found his scoring form in the national team. Like already mentioned, the 23-year-old scored the equalizer in Spain, but he also got the opener in the 1-1 draw in Belarus. Two important away points. Both provided courtesy of Teemu Pukki. Enough said.
Pukki also fits quite nicely into Finland’s attacking style (Granted, he would be more effective as a second striker, but the limited attacking options are hardly his fault). Finland’s style can be described as possession-based counter-attacking, and as a player with a good sense of movement, some cleverness and precise timing, Pukki is able to accommodate himself to both attacking phases. When Finland attacks more patiently Pukki can make space with his movement as well as link up the play. Then when Finland surges into a rapid attack (as was the case in Gijon), Pukki, making a direct forward run, is the focal point of the final pass.
Pukki may not be the best player in the Finland team, but at the moment he is the most important one. Moisander and Eremenko can be replaced for the occasional qualifier, but while Pukki remains the sole real scorer of goals in the squad, there is no substitute for the former KTP trainee.
Finland has a history of single match heroism, and people are entitled to dream for another miracle for tomorrow in Helsinki. Occasional triumphs may provide enough fuel to keep the Finnish football fans warm on freezing Finnish winter nights, but they have never provided enough to propel Finland to a major tournament. The four points gathered against Belarus will not take Finland to World Cup 2014 either, but they definitely speak volumes about the sort of comprehensive progress that may take Finland all the way in the future.