Finland head to this summer’s European Championship looking to make their major tournament debut a memorable one.
After years of failure, the Eagle-owls finished second only to Italy in Group J, four and five points clear of Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina respectively, winning six of their 10 games to seal a maiden appearance on the international stage.
Finland go into this summer’s tournament armed with arguably their most talented group since the likes of Jari Litmanen and Mikael Forssell were donning the white and blue and although they’re minnows at this level, fans will carry quiet optimism that they can upset the odds once again.
So, what can we expect from Finland at this summer’s European Championship?
The best players Finland will bring to Euro 2020
Goalkeeper: Lukas Hradecky
Though he wasn’t included in the most recent national team squad due to injury, Lukas Hradecky is the undisputed No.1 for Finland. The Bayer Leverkusen stopper is one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga with the ball at his feet, while his reflexes from close range are second-to-none.
The 31-year-old is also extremely proactive in coming off his line, though he does have a slight weakness at long shots. Leverkusen conceded an average of two goals conceded per game in his absence, keeping just one clean sheet during that time. In the Bundesliga alone, Hradecky has eight clean sheets to his name this season, conceding 0.94 goals per 90 minutes.
Finland are likely to come under a lot of pressure this summer in a group containing Belgium, Denmark and Russia, so Hradecky will have to be at his very best to give his forwards a chance of making a difference.
Defender: Joona Toivio
Joona Toivio will head into this tournament as Finland’s third-most capped active player behind Teemu Pukki (90) and captain Tim Sparv (80). Playing his football in Sweden with Hacken, Toivio is powerful in the air, making him a threat from set-pieces, and has brilliant positional intelligence, often leaving him well-placed to cut out crosses and make timely interceptions.
Toivio is also one of the few players in the Finland squad who has extensive European experience, making 26 combined Europa League and Champions League appearances for Molde and Hacken across his career. It’ll be up to him to anchor this Finland defence and keep Hradecky safe.
Midfielder: Robin Lod
Robin Lod enjoyed a stellar season in 2020 for MLS side Minnesota United, scoring eight goals — bettered only by Kevin Molino’s 13 at the club — and registering three assists. Those totals extended to 10 and four respectively across all competitions.
Lod isn’t the quickest, nor is he the most attractive on the eye. But the 28-year-old is extremely versatile, able to operate on both flanks and as a striker, where he will drop between the lines to link play. Lod’s touch and technique allow him to hold onto the ball in tight spaces and combine with his teammates in quick, one-touch passing sequences, and you’d do well to find a more hard-working forward in MLS right now.
An eye for goal and a strong work ethic; those are qualities that will come in handy for Finland this summer, who will seek to frustrate the opposition and make the most of their limited chances.
Forward: Teemu Pukki
The jewel in the crown of Finnish football right now is undoubtedly Teemu Pukki. The 31-year-old performed heroics during the qualification campaign, scoring a whopping 10 goals, at least six more than any other player in Group J. Critics will point to the fact that three of those goals were penalties, but even then, seven of them were not, and spot-kicks still require nerves of steel to put away.
Pukki also enjoyed another stellar season with Norwich, hitting 26 goals to fire the Canaries back to the Premier League.
However, the striker picked an ankle injury prior to the final game of the Championship season and although manager Daniel Farke is optimistic about his chances of making the Euros, there are genuine fears in the Finland camp.
“It’s a bit too early to judge the situation,” said Farke. “Now, of course, from a selfish point of view, from the club point of view, I might say it would not be the worst if Teemu got some rest. We wouldn’t have to rush the rehab. But it’s his lifelong dream.
“He has done so much for this club we of course support his wish to try everything. We have started his rehab processes here and then in a few weeks we will know if it is possible or not. I would say I am carefully optimistic for him because he is a quite quick healer.
“Our fingers are crossed for him. No other striker probably in Western Europe has had more games in the last three years. We hope everything goes well with the rehab so that he’s ready for the Euros.”
Finland boss Markku Kanerva added: “We believe that Teemu will be fit to play at the European Championships.
“The treatment programme and recovery have already started and everyone is aiming for Teemu Pukki to be in full working order when the European Championships start.”
The manager: Markku Kanerva
Markku Kanerva served as Finland U-21 manager for five years before taking over the senior team in 2011 for various assistant and interim roles, before being appointed permanently in December 2016.
During his time at youth level, Kaverva guided Finland U-21s to their first and, to date, only European Championship in 2009, where they were drawn into a group of death alongside England, Germany and Spain. Though they left with no points, they gave all three sides a run for their money, losing 2-1 to England before back-to-back 2-0 defeats to Germany and Spain, keeping their pride firmly intact.
Coupling that with Kanerva finally ending the senior team’s long wait for qualification to a major international tournament, as well as earning promotion to Uefa Nations League Group B in 2019, and you can see exactly why the 56-year-old is so highly regarded in his homeland.
Though Kanerva has often reverted to a 5-3-2, it was in a 4-4-2 shape that Finland had the most success during Euro qualifying, and is a system that has continued to be fielded regularly since. With Toivio helping protect Hradecky and Glen Kamara lining up alongside Sparv as double sixes, full-backs Jere Uronen and Jukka Raitala will have a little more freedom to get forward and support the attack. The latter will combine with his Minnesota United teammate Lod, who can cut inside onto his left foot to provide numerical support through the middle and create space for Raitala.
But a team full of proficient creators in wide areas is, obviously, all geared up to supply for Pukki, who will carry an immense goalscoring burden into this summer’s tournament. Next to him, Union Berlin forward Joel Pohjanpalo will provide a strong aerial presence, occupying opposition centre-backs and providing Pukki with more service via flick-ons.
The form guide
Euro 2020 qualifying: LWWLLWWWWL
Though their qualification campaign was bookended by defeats, Finland won six of their 10 games in Group J, with a four-match winning streak between matchdays two and five proving the difference. During that run, Finland scored seven goals, with Pukki responsible for four of them.
Recent fixtures: LDDLWWWWLW
Finland recently opened their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with back-to-back draws against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine — something they didn’t do at all during their European Championship qualifying cycle. A 3-1 defeat to Wales rounded off their Nations League campaign but prior to that, a four-game winning streak saw Kanerva’s men beat world champions France, Bulgaria (twice) and the Republic of Ireland, conceding just one goal along the way.
Finland’s Euro 2020 odds
Given that this is their first-ever major tournament appearance, it’ll come as no surprise to find Finland priced at 200/1 to win this summer’s European Championships according to Sky Bet. Only Hungary (500/1) and North Macedonia (750/1) have longer odds. A more realistic target might be qualifying for the knockout rounds as one of the best third-place teams, though being drawn into a group alongside Belgium, Denmark and Russia makes this an equally difficult task for Finland, who are priced at 2/1 to make it out of Group B.
If Finland are to reach the knockout rounds, Teemu Pukki is likely to have the biggest say. The Norwich striker is priced at 125/1 to win the Golden Boot this summer.
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)