I’ve been away for a few days.
This is the second part of my team analysis. The first part covered the goalkeeping and defence areas.
Jari Litmanen has been Finland’s star player and talisman for at least fifteen years. Now aged 39, he cannot be expected to consistently produce his magic, but he still has a valuable role in the line-up or as an impact substitute. It is to his great credit that he has not stepped down from the national team, despite it becoming very common for players to do so at ages as early as 30. He demonstrated his ability in style in Finland’s 2-1 victory over Wales in March 2009, but that will be eighteen months ago once Finland’s Euro 2012 qualifying campaign kicks off in Moldova in September. Joonas Kolkka, with 98 caps, has been another mainstay of Finland’s midfield, but he is now 35. If Finland are to prepare for the future, they need to build around the likes of Teemu Tainio (30) and Mika Väyrynen (28), so as not to rely on their old hands for every match.
My opinion: Tainio and Väyrynen have got the quality required at international level, and Stuart Baxter has been trying out a few youngsters in midfield lately who could play alongside them. Finland should not demand too much of Litmanen and Kolkka, but they can help other players to fit in to the squad.
4-5-1 seems to be the favoured formation in world football at the moment, and if Finland are to play with that system as well, their “1″ in attack will almost certainly be Mikael “Miklu” Forssell. His scoring record for the national team is decent, at almost one goal every three games. If Baxter needs someone else to partner Forssell up front, that could be more problematic. Jonatan Johansson has scored about one goal every five games for Finland, but he is now 34, and beyond him there are no standout candidates. Teemu Pukki has shown some potential, but is only 20 years old and has only won three caps so far.
My opinion: Forssell is a good player, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to play as a lone forward for large parts of the upcoming campaign. If a goal is required in the closing stages of a game, Jari Litmanen could play as a supporting striker, but not for 90 minutes.
Finland’s current crop of players seems to be strongly divided into two categories: ageing stars who perhaps cannot be relied on to play every game, and unproven youngsters who are yet to make their mark at the international stage. The overall quality of the squad is fair, but not in the same class as the Netherlands, and not quite as good as Sweden, who have been boosted by the return of the talented but enigmatic striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, either. It will be difficult to mesh the two groups together successfully, but that is Stuart Baxter’s task. The hope is that the older players can stick around to show the younger players the ropes before they head off into the sunset of international retirement. A lot is resting on captain Sami Hyypiä’s shoulders, but he cannot score or create all the goals for the side, so others must step up to the plate.
In honesty, a third-placed finish for Finland in their Euro 2012 qualifying group would be very respectable. However, it would not be much of a step forward, considering that their group is not as challenging as the ones they have faced in their last two campaigns. Second place must be their target, and to do that, they should aim to claim maximum points from all of their matches against Hungary, Moldova and San Marino, while beating Sweden at least once. Anything picked up against the Netherlands would just be a bonus.
Qualifying for the European Championships will be a difficult task, as it always is for small nations such as Finland, but it is not out of reach, and that should give the players hope and motivation. I look forward to seeing them take on the challenge.