Finland

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Going to EURO: Finland qualifies for first major tournament

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Norwich City’s Teemu Pukki scored two goals to help Finland clinch its first major tournament berth on Friday, earning a place in EURO 2020.

The Sonera Stadium crowd saw the Huuhkajat beat Liechtenstein 3-0 on Pukki’s brace after Jasse Tuomoinen set the table with a 21st minute opener.

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Finland dominated the proceedings, as expected, out-attempting the visitos 21-2 and holding 73 percent possession.

Italy has already won Group J with 24 points entering Friday’s action, while Finland’s win eliminates Greece. Bosnia and Herzegovina can now only qualify by winning the league.

Finland had qualified thrice for the Olympics (1936, 1952, 1980).

Elsewhere

Norway 4-0 Faroe Islands
Armenia 0-1 Greece

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

EURO qualifying wrap: Spain earns place in stoppage time

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Spain clinched a spot in EURO 2020 via a last-minute equalizer, but the rest of the picture only got murkier thanks to dramatics in Romania and Switzerland.)

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Sweden 1-1 Spain

A Marcus Berg header had Sweden on the verge of a significant home win against nearly unbeatable David De Gea and Spain, but Valencia forward Rodrigo delivered a stoppage time goal to give Robert Moreno’s men a place in EURO 2020. But Sweden can breathe a little easier thanks to a stoppage time goal across the continent.

Bad news for Manchester United, though, as De Gea’s strong day ended early due to injury.

Romania 1-1 Norway

New York City FC’s Alexandru Mitrita added another beauty to his collection in scoring for the second successive qualifier, but it wouldn’t stand up thanks to former Crystal Palace striker Alexander Sorloth‘s stoppage time equalizer.

Switzerland 2-0 Republic of Ireland

Terrible from the Irish, who trailed after 16 minutes and then went down to 10 men when Seamus Coleman was shown a red card in the 76th minute. Former West Ham man Edimilson Fernandes put it to bed in stoppage time as the Swiss out-attempted Ireland 20-9.

The Irish are tied for the lead in the group with 12 points but that’s about where the good news ends. They do not have an automatic spot in the playoffs while Denmark does and has 12 points. Switzerland has 11 and has also played one fewer match.

Ireland will need to beat Denmark next month and hope for help on the out-of-town scoreboard when Switzerland meets Gibraltar and Georgia.

Finland 3-0 Armenia

Norwich City striker Teemu Pukki continued his fine year with a pair of goals after Fredrik Jensen staked the Finnish side to a lead in Turku. Group J second place side Finland has a five-point lead on chasing Armenia and BNH.

Elsewhere

Faroe Islands 1-0 Malta
Gibraltar 2-3 Georgia
Greece 2-1 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Liechtenstein 0-5 Italy
Israel 3-1 Latvia

Euro 2020 qualifiers: Italy and Spain stay perfect, Eriksen shines for Denmark

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Christian Eriksen‘s future at Tottenham Hotspur may be in serious doubt, but his future with Denmark has never been more secure. The 27-year-old again proved vital for his country as he assisted the opener and scored a brace from the spot in a 6-0 storming of Gibraltar.

His assist came just six minutes into the match on a cross from deep down the right flank, sending it in for a finish off the head of Robert Skov. Eriksen then scored his first penalty past the half-hour mark to put Denmark 2-0 up on the road, and again stepped up to the spot for a second in the 50th minute. Thomas Delaney bagged Denmark’s fourth, Christian Gytkjaer added the fifth, and the Lech Poznan striker picked up his brace with 12 minutes to go.

Like Eriksen, Teemu Pukki remained white hot as Finland secured a massive 1-0 win at home over Greece, pushing them to second in Group J on 12 points. The goal, Pukki’s fourth of the qualifiers, came from the penalty spot in the 52nd minute after Dimitrios Kourbelis fouled Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara. The tally marks Pukki’s sixth goal in his last five matches for club and country, already on top of the Premier League goal chart with five.

Italy, meanwhile, moved to five wins through five matches atop Group J with a 3-1 win over Armenia. Andrea Belotti bagged a brace while Roma midfielder Lorenzo Pellegrini added the third in Yerevan. The victory came in comeback fashion as FC Sochi striker Alexander Karapetian opened the scoring 11 minutes in for the hosts on an impressive counter-attack, but he was sent off just before halftime for a second yellow card and Italy preserved its perfect record.

Sergio Ramos scored from the spot to help give Spain a slim 2-1 road victory over Romania. Spain put eight shots on frame in the first half to Romania’s one, but could only record the one penalty goal. A second would eventually be coming, and it did just two minutes after the break as Paco Alcacer finished off a wonderful team goal that featured an assist from Jordi Alba on a wonderful far-post run that caught the Romanian defense out of sorts and played Alcacer onside. On-loan Brighton striker Florin Andone pulled Romania one back with a half-hour to go but they couldn’t get past a bunkered-in Spain reduced to 10 men for the final 11 minutes after Real Sociedad defender Diego Llorente was sent off.

Manchester United defender Victor Lindelof was one of three goalscorers as Sweden hammered the Faroe Islands 4-0 on the road. All four goals came in the first half as the visitors coasted to build a three-point gap for a qualifying position behind Spain in Group F.

Newcastle defender Fabian Schar seemed to have given Switzerland a deserved 1-0 victory on the road at the Republic of Ireland, but a late 85th minute equalizer saw the scoreline level. The Magpies center-back marauded forward through the middle and contributed the finish to a wonderful bit of one-touch attacking with 15 minutes to go. Switzerland deserved to go in front despite the lack of Xherdan Shaqiri who made himself unavailable for selection as he fights for a place in the Liverpool squad. The home side would peg Switzerland back, however, as David McGoldrick delivered a header five minutes from time to share the spoils, moments after Glenn Whelan struck the bar.

Bosnia & Herzegovina poured it on late to top Lichtenstein 5-0. The hosts held 68% possession and popped off 28 shots to Lichtenstein’s eight, but could only muster an 11th minute effort from Amer Gojak for the majority of the match. It was 1-0 until the final 10 minutes when they poured four more on, with Edin Dzeko, Haris Duljevic, and Edin Visca all finding the back of the net plus a second for Gojak. The three points were vital as they pushed Bosnia & Herzegovina up to third in Group J, with a five point gap between them and second-placed Finland.

Norway topped Malta 2-0 at home as Bournemouth’s Josh King scored from the spot. 21-year-old Genk midfielder opened the scoring past the half-hour mark, and King delivered his penalty in first-half stoppage time as the home side cruised in Oslo. They jumped into third in Group F, but still sit two points back of Sweden.

Israel drew 1-1 with Macedonia at home, a disappointing result that sees their second-place spot in Group G suddenly in peril, with third-placed Austria and fourth-placed Slovenia now within striking distance as they both take the field tomorrow.

UEFA Nations League: Dzeko scores, Finland wins again

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England’s 3-1 win over Spain was the biggest news of the day in UEFA Nations League play, but there was plenty else to take from the action on Monday.

Edin Dzeko bagged a double as Bosnia & Herzegovina defeated Northern Ireland 2-0. The Roma striker robbed Jamal Lewis of the ball in his own defensive third after the defender slipped, and he buried the chance before the defense could regroup. He picked up his second with 17 minutes remaining as Miralem Pjanic completely bypassed the midfield with a fantastic long chip to Dzeko waiting on the left side of the box, and he had an easy finish with the defense trailing the play.

Dzeko’s two goals were two of just five total shots on target between the two sides in an otherwise drab match, as Northern Ireland has just one win in its last six matches.

Finland topped Greece 2-0 for its fifth consecutive clean-sheet win, going ahead on a goal by Pyry Soiri who finished off a messy chance in the box just after halftime as Greece failed to clear. Finland has not conceded a single goal since falling 2-0 to Romania in mid-June, a run of 479 total minutes. The center-back pairing of Joona Toivio and Paulus Arajuuri has started and played every minute of the three UEFA Nations League wins. Midfielder Glen Kamara scored Finland’s second, ending the country’s run of three straight 1-0 victories.

Switzerland held on to beat Iceland 2-1, with Haris Seferovic and Michael Lang on target for the visitors in Reykjavik. The former headed in a perfect far-post cross from Granit Xhaka just after halftime, while Lang finished off a beautiful bit of team play as Seferovic switched play from right to left before it came back in front of net, touching two Swiss players before finding Lang on the doorstep for finish in traffic. Alfred Finnbogason picked up a consolation with nine minutes left but that would wrap things up.

Hungary drew 3-3 with Estonia in a wild match that featured a double from Hoffenheim striker Adam Szalai. The 30-year-old Hungarian bagged a brace on his 50th cap, including his second that rescued a point for his country in the 81st minute after they wasted a 2-1 lead and fell behind 3-2.

Luxembourg topped 10-man San Marino 3-0, grabbing the opener just four minutes in and cruising to the win. Belarus and Moldova drew 0-0 in Minsk as Moldova failed to register a single shot on target despite holding the majority of possession.