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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

Watford beat Norwich for first PL win

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Friday night’s win for Watford was sweeter than some victories it’s celebrated in the past.

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In the middle of a difficult start to the 2019-2020 Premier League season, Watford secured its first league victory of the year, beating Norwich, 2-0, on the road. Watford played the last 25 minutes down to ten men after Christian Kabasele was shown a second yellow card, but the Hornets appeared to only improve as the game wore on.

With the win, Watford jumps out of the Premier League basement and over Norwich into 18th place, while Norwich with the defeat sinks into last place in the league, just seven points from 12 games.


3 things we learned

1. Flores has brought defensive mindset back to Watford: Friday’s clean sheet was Watford’s third in its last five Premier League games, and even when it’s given up goals, it’s kept things close, with only three goals allowed in that span and one defeat. Clearly, Quique Sanchez Flores has helped Watford rebound from the 8-0 smashing v. Manchester City and they stand a chance at this rate of surviving for another season in the Premier League.

2. No Pukki, no win: If it wasn’t clear before, now it is. Norwich City is completely Pukki dependent. The Canaries looked woeful in the attack and although Pukki had a couple of chances, he wasn’t able to score. The Flying Fin hasn’t scored since mid-September in Norwich’s 3-2 win over Manchester City, a streak now extended to seven Premier League games

3. Big players make big plays: Watford spent millions of dollars to bring in attacking talents like Deulofeu and Gray, and on Friday at least, they showed they were worth the price. The pair each scored a goal and helped lift a struggling Watford team to a crucial win just before the international break.

Man of the Match: Gerard Deulofeu – The Spaniard slalomed through defenders to put Watford up early and then set up Gray with his goal in the second half to round off a great performance.


Watford needed less than two minutes to get on the scoreboard after a poor error from Norwich midfielder Emiliano Buendia. After Buendia coughed up the ball in midfield, Gerard Deulofeu raced ahead, evaded defenders and eventually finished into the far post end of the goal with his weaker left-foot.

It was the beginning of a back and forth affair with chances at either end. Darryl Janmaat and Deulofeu had chances to increase the lead in the next 20 minutes, but both players put their strikes wide of goal. Meanwhile, Alexander Tetty put a shot just wide and Onel Hernandez had a shot saved after Watford’s Ben Foster raced off his line to cut down the angle.

Early in the second half, it was Watford which went on the ascendency. Deulofeu raced down the left side before delivering in a cross into the middle. Andre Gray, a first half substitute, stuck out a leg and redirected the ball in to put Watford up 2-0 in the 52nd minute.

Kabasele was given his marching orders in the 65th minute, after a strong tackle on Norwich’s Josep Drmic and put Watford down a man. However, the team sat back into a low block with two blocks of defenders, and Norwich had no answer the rest of the match to break them down.

The Canaries lack of big-time players came back to haunt them as Todd Cantwell, Teemu Pukki and Drmic all failed to truly threaten Foster in goal.

WATCH LIVE: Norwich City v. Watford

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The two sides at the bottom of the Premier League table do battle in an absolutely critical matchup as Norwich City hosts Watford at Carrow Road at 3:00 p.m. ET live online at NBCSports.com.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

Norwich City has won just twice all year, while Watford has yet to pick up a single win in 11 matches, so both teams will come into this matchup knowing the time is ripe for all three points. A draw does neither side any good, so it can be expected that both teams will go for it all.

However, finding the back of the net has been difficult for both squads of late. Both sides have scored just two goals over their last six matches, and putting together an attacking mentality will be critical not only in this massive meeting but also moving forward in the battle against relegation.

Quique Sanchez Flores makes three changes to his side that narrowly lost by one goal to Chelsea last time out, dropping Andre Gray to the bench to add another midfielder in Etienne Capoue. The Norwich lineup, meanwhile, sees no changes from last time out against Brighton Hove & Albion.

LINEUPS

Norwich City: Krul, Aarons, Godfrey, Hernandez, Lewis, Buendia, Stiepermann, Trybull, Pukki, McLean, Tettey.
Bench: Fahrmann, Byran, Vrancic, Cantwell, Drmic, Amadou, Srbeny.

Watford: Foster, Janmaat, Dawson, Deulofeu, Cathcart, Doucoure, Hughes, Holebas, Kabasele, Capoue, Pereyra.
Bench: Gomes, Mariappa, Deeny, Masina, Chalobah, Gray, Femenia.

Premier League Preview: Norwich City v. Watford

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Two teams more than a result away from safety hope to get a season-changing win at Carrow Road on Friday (Watch live at 3 p.m. ET, online at NBCSports.com).

Hosts Norwich City enter the match with seven points, the second worst total in the league to its visitors: basement-dwelling, winless Watford.

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

“This will be like a big, big final for both teams,” said Watford manager Quique Sanchez Flores.

Watford’s performances have improved dramatically, but the Hornets are six points back of 17th. Norwich has two more points, but their performances have been a far cry from the team that beat Man City and took Chelsea to the limit.


Injuries/suspensions

Norwich City: OUT — Timm Klose, Christoph Zimmermann, Grant Hanley. QUESTIONABLE — Mario Vrancic.

Watford: OUT — Domingos Quina, Danny Welbeck. QUESTIONABLE — Craig Cathcart.


Probable lineups

Norwich City: Krul, Aarons, Tettey, Godfrey, Lewis, Cantwell, McLean, Buendia, Stiepermann, Hernandez, Pukki.

Watford: Foster, Masina, Kabasele, Dawson, Janmaat, Doucoure, Chalobah, Hughes, Pereyra, Deulofeu, Gray.


What they’re saying

Norwich boss Daniel Farke on the mood: “I think it’s important as a coach to face reality, you can’t make jokes and have fun, you’ve got to address the elephant in the room to help them regain confidence. I don’t punish my players, it’s about helping them improve and believe in themselves.”

The Hornets’ Flores on why this match matters: “It is not the end of the season but it is a big final for both of us and the way the game and result can change the future for both teams will be massive.”


Prediction

Troy Deeney comes off the bench to make a difference in his return from injury, and Watford wins 2-1.

Brighton win again, beat Norwich

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Brighton beat Norwich City 2-0 at the Amex Stadium on Saturday, as the Seagulls continue their amazing form at home.

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Graham Potter‘s side saw Leandro Trossard score one and set up another as the Seagulls made it 2-0 thanks to Shane Duffy‘s late striker. They dominated Norwich and should have won by a heftier margin.

With the win Brighton move up to eighth in the table, while Norwich remain second from bottom.


3 things we learned

1. Trossard’s quality tells: The playmaker arrived from Genk this summer and when he’s been fit, he’s made a huge difference. Potter has Brighton playing lovely football and they need a cutting edge. Trossard delivers that, and he was the difference on Saturday with a goal and an assist.

2. Norwich fail to support Pukki: Early in the season the Canaries were getting up to support Pukki, but they just aren’t doing that anymore. Farke’s side are sitting too deep, maybe due to their defensive injuries and issues, and aren’t gambling to support their star Finnish striker in attack.

3. Seagulls soaring away from relegation scrap: Many believed Brighton would be in the bottom three at the end of the season, and that clearly won’t be the case. They are solid defensively but now have a clear plan in midfield and attack and they are exciting to watch. They’ve made the most of the momentum they gained from beating Tottenham. What a start for Potter.

Man of the Match: Leonardo Trossard – He jumped off the bench and scored and grabbed an assist, with the Belgian playmaker key in this Brighton side. If he can stay fit, the Seagulls will be clear of the bottom three.


Brighton dominated the first half but couldn’t finish off the chances they created as Norwich held on.

Neal Maupay then missed a sitter, as he swung his foot at but failed to get a proper connection as Brighton let Norwich off the hook.

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In the second half it was Aaron Connolly‘s turn to go close, then at the other end Teemu Pukki had a half chance but couldn’t make the most of it.

Norwich barely threatened in attack and Pukki was an isolated figure up top.

Montoya whipped in a cross at the near post as Trossard poked home to put Brighton 1-0 with 20 minutes to go and seal all three points for the Seagulls.

Maupay was denied by Tim Krul late on and missed another glorious chance late on, but Duffy then scored as he stretched his leg out to make it 2-0 after Trossard’s ball.

Brighton’s great home form continues as they’ve now won three-straight at the Amex.