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Finland close to first major finals: ‘It will go crazy’

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The temperatures are plummeting and the days are getting shorter as another harsh winter approaches in Finland.

Expectations around the country’s soccer team are rising, though, like never before.

On Friday, Finland could seal a place in the finals of a major soccer tournament for the first time in its history. All that’s needed is a home win over Liechtenstein, one of the world’s weakest teams, in Helsinki and the Finns will take their place in next year’s European Championship.

After so many past disappointments, it is a day many in this Nordic country of 5.5 million inhabitants – better known for its hockey team, rally drivers and javelin throwers – thought would never arrive.

It is one that could transcend soccer, changing the mentality of a nation.

“There are always skeptics – with a sort of `Ah, they are never going to do it anyway’ feeling – in more or less everything we do, whether it is music, anything,” said former Finland player Aki Riihilahti, who is now CEO of Finnish champion HJK Helsinki. “The Finnish nature is that only when there comes an external acknowledgement of an achievement do we go and support it.

“For what this will mean, it is more important mentally than factually.”

Finland has had better teams down the years, on paper anyway. They’ve had more celebrated players, too – think of Jari Litmanen, the silky playmaker for Ajax and Barcelona, and Sami Hyypia, the defensive stalwart at Liverpool. Yet getting to a World Cup or European Championship has been beyond them, despite more than 80 years of trying.

Finland remains, somewhat embarrassingly, the only major Nordic country to have never qualified for a major tournament.

So what’s changed? The hiring of a former primary school teacher as coach has plenty to do with it.

Markku Kanerva was promoted to the job in December 2016, having previously been an assistant with the team and a former player in the 1980s and ’90s. He inherited a team that had gone all of 2016 without a win and also one that was about to lose some of its best players. One midfielder, Roman Eremenko, received a two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2016; another, Perparim Hetemaj, would go on to retire in early 2018 to focus on his club career.

Kanerva took a pragmatic view of the team, picking players according to their individual strengths rather than a pre-existing style and reverting to a straightforward 4-4-2 formation. His approach was based on hard work and strong defensive shape, and relied on the country’s most high-profile player – striker Teemu Pukki – poaching some goals at the other end.

Kanerva also approaches coaching like he would teaching, encouraging his players to interact more, take responsibility, and learn what they have done wrong so they can improve.

The results have been striking. Finland won its group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition after winning its opening four qualifying games, earning promotion to League B and guaranteeing a playoff spot for Euro 2020 that might not be necessary.

In Euro 2020 qualifying, the Finns reacted to an opening loss to Italy by winning four straight Group J games without conceding a goal. After eight games, they are in second place, behind already qualified Italy but five points ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia. With two teams advancing automatically, Finland needs one win from its final two qualifiers over the coming days, starting with last-place Liechtenstein, to make history.

“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” said Marco Casagrande, general secretary of the Football Association of Finland. “All the other things in our sports we have managed to do, but this is something that’s still separating us from being a real sports country.”

Finland’s underperformance on the international stage was bought into sharp focus by Iceland, a tiny Nordic brother with a population of just 330,000, reaching both Euro 2016 and last year’s World Cup.

Casagrande recalls speaking to his colleagues at the Icelandic FA, asking them: “So what’s your secret?”

“It didn’t help,” Casagrande said, “when everyone was saying, `You are losing all the games and Iceland is going to the Euros. Come on guys, what are you doing?”‘

Iceland’s rise was based on a strong collective effort combined with a sprinkle of stardust by its one standout player, Gylfi Sigurdsson, and Finland is pretty much the same.

While goalkeeper Lukas Hradecki, who plays in Germany for Bayer Leverkusen, gets plenty of plaudits, most of the spotlight falls on Pukki, the hard-working striker who has scored seven goals in qualifying and made a strong start to his first season in the Premier League with Norwich.

“Teemu Pukki is really somebody who everybody seems to love,” said Riihilahti, who also played in England’s top division with Crystal Palace, “and has been adopted as the Finnish savior who is bringing us to the promised land.”

When Finland won the men’s hockey world championship this year for the first time since 2011, there were wild celebrations in central Helsinki as champagne-swilling fans braved the cold weather by stripping off and taking a swim in the fountain and climbing on the famous Havis Amanda statue.

Expect more of the same if the country’s soccer players finally make the long-awaited international breakthrough.

“Finnish people would all celebrate like a big festival,” Riihilahti said. “It will go crazy.”

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Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Manchester United: Solskjaer hopeful of new Paul Pogba contract

Paul Pogba contract
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Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is singing a new tune, hopeful that star midfielder Paul Pogba will stick around Old Trafford for the long term.

Reports say that United has an option to extend Pogba’s contract by an extra year beyond its 2021 expiry, but Solskjaer is thinking bigger. He has been praising Pogba plenty since the World Cup winner returned to the lineup.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

It’s a bit surprising given Pogba and his super agent’s constant time in the rumor mill, with Real Madrid often linked with the Frenchman. And that agent, Mino Raiola, has not been so nice when it comes to judging Solskjaer.

But Solskjaer is reportedly hopeful that Pogba can join Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, and others in building a new power.

“I can’t comment on discussions between player and the club but. of course, we want to keep the best players around the club,” Solskjaer said. “We want to build a squad for the future and Scott and Nemanja are a similar position but at different stages in their careers. One at the start, one really experienced one.”

Pogba leads United in key passes per game with 2.3, though his minutes have been severely limited by injuries this season. He had 13 goals and nine assists last season, and turned 27 in March.

The way United’s performed in recent weeks it would not be a surprise if keeping its main talents while adding another stalwart center back and wing would propel it into a more serious table discussion.

Do you buy the idea that Pogba could be with United well into the future?

Suarez goal gives Barcelona win, relegates neighbors Espanyol

Espanyol relegated
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Seventh-place one season ago, La Liga mainstays Espanyol are being relegated from Spain’s top flight.

The final decision came at the hands of their Catalan neighbors Barcelona, who got a second-half goal from Luis Suarez to relegate Espanyol.

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Espanyol are 11 points back of 17th place and can only capture nine more points this season following the 1-0 loss in a match where both teams had a player sent off.

Suarez’s goal was a nice one after Antoine Griezmann’s back heel pass to Lionel Messi saw the Argentine’s shot deflect onto the path of the Uruguayan finisher.

Espanyol had been in the top flight since 1994 and has only spent four single seasons outside La Liga since 1929. Leganes and Mallorca may join them soon.

Barcelona moves a point back of Real Madrid. Real has four matches left to Barca’s three and holds the tiebreaker.

Klopp reacts to Liverpool wins, says Henderson injury ‘not nothing’

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Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion was a bit more what we’re used to from the Premier League champions.

But that wasn’t the focus of the post-match despite a highlight-reel show from Mohamed Salah, as Reds boss Jurgen Klopp sounded an ominous note when asked about Jordan Henderson leaving the match with injury.

“I don’t know exactly but it was something with the knee I think. We know it’s not nothing.”

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Henderson’s not exactly a player to hit the deck unless he’s feeling pain, and Klopp removed him for James Milner with 10 minutes to play.

That’s about the only bad news from the win, as Liverpool became the first team this season to breach the 90-point mark and saw Salah’s brace move him within three goals of the Golden Boot lead.

Salah would only say, “Let’s take it game-by-game,” but it’s clearly on his mind.

Trent Alexander-Arnold says the Egyptian is hungry to get a share of a third-straight Golden Boot.

From the BBC:

“He has his targets, he’s around the Golden Boot and it’s something he wants to retain,” Alexander-Arnold said. “He’s a world class player who scores so many goals for us and we try to get him on the board as much as possible.”

As for the match, Brighton almost as missed some big chances as Liverpool before the game was out of reach. Klopp admits that it was a challenge.

“We started really well,” Klopp said. “We had to adapt a little bit as we knew what they wanted to do but it was a little bit hard to defend. We left one or two players in a position where if we won the ball we had players in the counter-attack position. We got the first two goals with super balls but we could have scored more. I said to the boys at half-time they could have been 2-2 too. It was a nice game to watch.”

The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.

Liverpool march continues with 3-1 win at Brighton

Brighton - Liverpool recap
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Mohamed Salah had two goals and an assist in the first eight minutes of Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Brighton and Hove Albion at the Amex Stadium on Wednesday.

Salah is now three goals behind league leader Jamie Vardy, and Liverpool’s 92 points are 23 more than Man City. Jordan Henderson also scored for the Reds.

BRIGHTON – LIVERPOOL FULL MATCH REPLAY

Leandro Trossard scored for Brighton, whose 36 points are nine clear of the bottom three with four matches to play (The 18th and 19th place sides do have a match each in hand).

[ MORE: Premier League summer schedule ]

Liverpool’s 30 wins through 34 outings is a Premier League record and Jurgen Klopp’s men are chasing several PL records. The Reds finish with Burnley, Arsenal, Chelsea, and Newcastle United.


Three things we learned

1. Salah somehow under the radar: Look, the Egyptian star’s 32-goal league season was an outlier. Not a lot of guys consistently hit 25, let alone the 30 mark in the Premier League. But Salah has rather quietly put together another amazing season with 19 goals and nine assists in PL play plus another four and three in cup competitions. Salah is one assist of joining the a small group of players to get double digit league goals and assists in a top five European league this season.

While it’s become sexy to praise Sadio Mane as the Reds’ top winger, Salah has been just as good. He could’ve had another goal in the 53rd but Mat Ryan made a fine intervention at close range. If Salah is under the radar, it’s because Liverpool has spread the wealth this season and had so many heroes in close matches. But boy, oh boy, is he their best weapon.

2. Lamptey shows glimpses, then youth: The sample size is very small, but 19-year-old Chelsea outcast Tariq Lamptey has played well at right back in most of his outings for Brighton since the return from the coronavirus pause. Lamptey was at blame for Liverpool’s third goal in both the chance conceded and actual finish from Salah, but the $4 million January buy looked well worth the price tag in a terrific first half at the Amex.

3. Seagulls still missing final ball: Brighton produced four big chances in the game to Liverpool’s two, but only put one in the back of the net (SofaScore). That’s sadly been par for the course this season, as Brighton’s style has been worthy of a top half place. Brighton entered the day with seven fewer goals than its expected goals total. Only Everton, Watford, and Norwich have been less fortunate.

Man of the Match:

Salah.


Brighton – Liverpool recap

Salah had a goal and an assist within 500 seconds of kickoff.

The Egyptian took a feed from Naby Keita to score off a Davy Propper giveaway and then set up Henderson’s second to have the Seagulls’ heads spinning early.

Brighton found a chance in the 19th but Neco Williams recovered with a slide to block Leandro Trossard from slotting a point-blank goal.

The Seagulls pulled within one just before halftime when in-form youngster Tariq Lamptey swept a cross into the mix for Trossard to punch home.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Salah could’ve had it 3-1 at one end but Brighton’s Dan Burn asked the Egyptian to hold his drink with a butchered wide-open shot at the back post in the 60th minute.

Jurgen Klopp didn’t like the close score, and brought on Fabinho, Andy Robertson, and Sadio Mane in the second half. One of the players he removed, Naby Keita, had a strong hour before departing the contest.

Henderson almost produced a third Liverpool goal after a rare Lamptey error spring a chance that took a wicked turn off Dale Stephens.

The Reds made it 3-1 off the ensuing corner, Salah’s clinical header in front of Lamptey. Henderson limped off for Liverpool late in the contest.

Ryan denied Salah a hat trick in stoppage time and the Egyptian headed over the bar at the final whistle. He could’ve had five.