Finland’s 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign begins in exactly one month’s time. The Frozen Pitch takes a look at their form, their opponents, and what they can realistically expect to achieve in a tough group.
Perparim Hetemaj gave Finland a win against Turkey. Photo: Football Association of Finland
Finland are currently undefeated in the summer of 2012, having won two and drawn one of the three friendlies they have played so far. They did, however, suffer a penalty shoot-out defeat to Latvia in the final of the Baltic Cup, in which they were competing for the first time in the competition’s 84-year history. Finland had beaten the host nation Estonia in the first round to reach the final, despite playing most of that match with ten men after Alexander Ring’s sending off at the end of the first half.
Earlier on in the summer, Finland overcame Turkey 3-2 in a thrilling match in Salzburg, Austria, that saw first international goals for Perparim Hetemaj and, notably, Teemu Pukki. The two teams had been evenly matched for 90 minutes before Hetemaj scored an injury time winner from a Mika Ojala pass. Finland’s other goal came from Roman Eremenko.
Finland have one more friendly to play before turning their attention to the World Cup qualifiers, as they will play Northern Ireland at Windsor Park, Belfast, a week tomorrow. Helping Finland’s cause in that match might be the fact that their domestic season has been in full swing for a number of months, while Northern Ireland’s season, as well as England’s, home to many of their senior players, have not yet started.
Although it could be said that there are no easy groups in the European section of the 2014 World Cup qualifying, Finland will feel unfortunate to have wound up in group I. The group’s top seeds are Spain. That’s double European champions, World Cup holders, unbeaten in their last twenty competitive matches Spain. If Finland expect to get so much as a point from their two matches against them, they are deluded.
The second seeds, and Finland’s first opponents, are France. After a promising qualifying campaign for Euro 2012, France underwhelmed in the competition itself, finishing second in their group after drawing with England and losing to Sweden (hey, we’ve all been there) before being knocked out by the aforementioned Spain. That led to Laurent Blanc’s resignation and replacement by Didier Deschamps. The match against Finland will be their first under Deschamps, so it’s difficult to be sure how they will perform, but realistically Finland can’t expect more than one point from their two matches against them.
The group’s third seeds are Belarus, who, like Finland, are yet to qualify for a major football championship (as an independent nation). The closest they came was a third-place finish in their 2002 World Cup qualifying group, one place away from a play-off spot. More recently, they have finished fourth in their last three qualification groups, making them a good match for Finland, on paper at least. Finland will hope to take beat them at least once in their two encounters.
Georgia are another team who are still waiting to reach their first major competition, and they are the group’s fourth seeds as well as Finland’s second opponents. Their attempt to qualify for the previous World Cup was something of a nadir for them, as they failed to win a single match in ten attempts and finished bottom of their group. They could only manage one place higher when in Euro 2012 qualification, so Finland will be hopeful of getting the better of them over their two matches, perhaps by taking four points, to ensure finishing above them.
Finland themselves are the fifth seeds of the group. That also makes them the bottom seeds, as group I is the only one in the UEFA qualifying section to feature five teams rather than six. My opinion is that that is a bad thing for Finland. It means two fewer competitive matches for their young players to gain experience (and instead, two additional friendlies of questionable value), one team fewer for Finland to beat – the sixth-ranked teams are inevitably the whipping boys of their groups – and one home match fewer for the football association to sell tickets for.
Only having five teams in the group also increases the danger of Finland finishing last, though they will be aiming higher than that. To be involved in a battle over the third and fourth places in the group would be an achievement for Finland, even if they end up finishing fourth. Fourth won’t be so much of an achievement if the top three are miles away and Finland only have a point more than the fifth-placed team.
I’m not even going to mention the possibility of Finland coming first or second in their group, because it’s just not going to happen, while finishing last would be a big disappointment, as it would damage their chances of getting into a better “pot” for the Euro 2016 draw, which is their real aim.
That’s what is going to keep me interested in these qualifiers, despite knowing that Finland have no chance of escaping their group. Mixu Paatelainen has done well to refresh the squad in his brief time in charge of the team, and now has an opportunity to work with a stable group of players over two qualification periods in order to lead Finland to Euro 2016. Most of his players should make progress over these next two years, and a handful – the likes of Teemu Pukki and Alexander Ring – have the potential to forge great international careers for Finland.
For the time being, this blog will only be reporting on Finland’s international matches. I regret having to make that decision, but I feel it’s the only way I can keep it going at all, as it would otherwise give me too much work alongside my university studies and part-time job.