Euro 2020: Fin­land eye first fi­nals and Koe­man weighs options

The National - News - - SPORT FOOTBALL - Ian Hawkey

The sun will set in Helsinki well be­fore 4pm on Fri­day, Novem­ber nights in the far north of Europe be­ing long and cold. Come 9pm, though, much light, laugh­ter and joy is an­tic­i­pated. Fin­land are on the brink of a place at their first ma­jor tour­na­ment – the 2020 Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship.

All that is re­quired of the Finns is a win against Liecht­en­stein, the min­nows’ min­nows, to se­cure sec­ond po­si­tion in the Group J led by Italy.

Even were they to some­how slip up, they will be through if Bos­nia-Herze­gov­ina do not beat the Ital­ians and Ar­me­nia drop points against Greece. And there’s a match to spare. And, be­yond that, a guar­an­teed place in the play-offs if needed.

The only re­gret is that such an ar­ray of en­try-points are all crowded into this sin­gle set of qual­i­fiers. More tal­ented Fin­land squads in the past would have cher­ished just one of those routes to a Euro.

The con­sen­sus is that Fin­land do not have in­di­vid­u­als to com­pare with, say, Jari Lit­ma­nen, the Ajax and Barcelona play­maker of the 1990s and 2000s, nor as au­thor­i­ta­tive a de­fender as Sami Hyypia was in the same pe­riod, notably for Liver­pool. But their as­sort­ment of jour­ney­men, play­ers scat­tered around clubs from Canada to Cyprus, are well drilled, backed up by a fine goal­keeper, Lukas Hradecky, of Bayer Lev­erkusen, at one end of the pitch and spear­headed by an ef­fec­tive striker, Teemu Pukki, of Nor­wich City, at the other.

Pukki’s club form of Au­gust and Septem­ber – six goals in his first five Premier League out­ings – may have de­serted him lately, but he has been the Finn with the finest fin­ish in this cam­paign, with seven goals. Hradecky’s five clean sheets have been equally valu­able.

Koe­man’s quandary

Another Dutch get-to­gether, another round of ques­tions for man­ager Ron­ald Koe­man about the prospects of his next job be­ing in charge of Barcelona, where he won a Euro­pean Cup as a player. It has be­come a stan­dard rit­ual, and not one Koe­man seems to mind. “It’s a pos­si­bil­ity,” he ad­mit­ted ahead of the fi­nal round of Group C qual­i­fiers, fully aware his lead­er­ship of the Nether­lands’ re­nais­sance has made him a com­pelling can­di­date should Ernesto Valverde leave the Cata­lan club next sum­mer.

In Belfast, the Dutch can se­cure their spot in the fi­nals with a point against Northern Ire­land on Satur­day. For most Hol­land squads in the past, qual­i­fy­ing for 24-team tour­na­ment would scarcely count as any­thing more than rou­tine. But be­fore Koe­man, who won the Euro­pean cham­pi­onship as a player in 1988, took over, the Dutch were in cri­sis. They reached nei­ther Euro 2016 nor the 2018 World Cup.

Koe­man will not com­mit to Hol­land be­yond the Euros, although he has good rea­son to sup­pose this Dutch re­vival should be long-term.

The un­der-17 team have just matched their best run at a World Cup for that age group in reach­ing the semi-fi­nal, a promis­ing sign for who­ever man­ages the se­niors over the next decade.

Ab­sent as­sas­sins

Ac­cord­ing to Uefa’s co­ef­fi­cient rank­ings, Spain’s La Liga and Eng­land’s Premier League are the strong­est do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tions in Europe. Alas, then, that in Uefa’s prin­ci­pal in­ter­na­tional show­piece, Euro 2020, the hot­shot strik­ers from each have no part to play.

One is Karim Ben­zema, whose nine Liga goals for Real Madrid put him top of the

charts in Spain this sea­son.

Ben­zema made the last of his 81 in­ter­na­tional ap­pear­ances for France in 2015, and as long as Di­dier Deschamps, with whom he has fallen out ter­mi­nally, is in charge of the world cham­pi­ons, he is very un­likely to add to them.

The other is Jamie Vardy, 11 Premier League goals for a vi­brant Le­ices­ter City but ef­fec­tively re­tired from Eng­land duty since the Rus­sia World Cup.

Vardy, 32, did not rule out a re­turn, but de­tected young play­ers had be­come a pri­or­ity for man­ager Gareth South­gate, and that less travel with Eng­land would en­hance his club per­for­mances. On that, the cur­rent ev­i­dence speaks for it­self.

Samba with a snarl

How many Brazil­ians will play at Euro 2020? A good hand­ful, with Jorginho a main­stay for his adopted coun­try, Italy, and Rus­sia reg­u­larly field­ing a pair of nat­u­ralised sons of South Amer­ica.

Now, Gabriel Paulista, the Va­len­cia and for­mer Arse­nal de­fender, has an­nounced his im­mi­nent Span­ish cit­i­zen­ship and that he would pre­fer the op­por­tu­nity, if of­fered, of play­ing for Spain at the Euros rather than an­swer any callup from his na­tive coun­try.

Which raises the in­trigu­ing prospect of spiky train­ing ses­sions, should Gabriel and Brazil-born Diego Costa, who has 24 Spain caps, be picked to­gether. They were com­bat­ants in a no­to­ri­ous 2015 brawl, play­ing for Arse­nal and Chelsea.

AFP

Goal­keeper Lukas Hradecky is part of an ef­fec­tive Fin­land team at the Euro 2020 qual­i­fiers

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