Showing posts with label Markku Kanerva. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Markku Kanerva. Show all posts

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What next for Finland?

2018 World Cup qualifying is over for Finland. Well, it's been over for months. Monday night saw the final match in group I, in Turku against an also-eliminated Turkey. It turned out to be an entertaining 2-2, but ultimately counts for little other than FIFA ranking points and cementing Finland's place in division C in the upcoming Nations League.

Like the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, the best sequence of results was saved for the end, when the pressure was ultimately off. Finishing with two wins and two draws has echoes of that group, but the seeds of failure were sown much earlier.
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The World Cup group was drawn in 2015, when Finland were at their lowest ebb after the sacking of Mixu Paatelainen. Placed in the fifth seeding pot due to a poor FIFA ranking, the Finns were drawn in a tough group with Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine, before being joined later by Kosovo. Fifth place was expected, and achieved.

After Markku Kanerva steadied the ship post-Mixu, the Finnish FA (Palloliitto) held an open search for his successor. Applicants included Stuart Pearce and former Gibraltar boss Allen Bula; but the selection panel of the late FA chairman Pertti Alaja, secretary Marco Casagrande and advisor Jari Litmanen went for Swede Hans Backe - a manager who had mostly worked in Scandinavia, with diverse spells at Notts County and New York Red Bulls...
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Backe's reign was an unmitigated disaster. No wins, a complete lack of vision and an even lower FIFA ranking, which ended up outside the top 100. The fixture choices seemed baffling, taking prestige batterings by Germany, Poland and Italy over more productive games. Probably not Backe's fault, but still.
Kanerva again took the reins, this time on a permanent basis. Despite a friendly win over Morocco, other results stayed poor. Injuries played their part, Moisander and Sparv were long-term absentees, while Joel Pohjanpalo and Eero Markkanen struggled to get minutes for their club sides. When he was able to field a virtually full-strength team against Iceland, they won 1-0 and followed that with a win over Kosovo and score draws against Croatia and Turkey.
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It's perhaps harsh to compare Kanerva with England's Gareth Southgate - promoted after a sacking, more experience of coaching or working with youngsters. Barring a catastrophe or a complete change of heart at the top of Palloliitto, Markku will be in charge when the Nations League kicks off in 2018 and probably the Euro 2020 qualifying in 2019. Are there any obvious Finnish contenders to replace him? Simo Valakari is now in Norway, Lehkosuo has won a double with HJK but was lucky to keep his job a year ago.

Individually, Finland have some very good players. There is a decent spine that, when all fit, should provide plenty of tough opposition. The youngsters on the fringes of the side have shown that they can add dynamism and pace. Players like Simon Skrabb, Fredrik Jensen, Pyry Soiri and Sauli Väisänen show promise and could become established internationals in the coming years. Alex Ring has come on leaps and bounds at New York City FC, Paulus Arajuuri looked good in the qualifiers and Lukas Hradecky has a fine record in the Bundesliga.

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Will Finland qualify for a major tournament any time soon? Well the 24 team Euros and the wildcard spots from the Nations League represent the best chance. It'll need a favourable draw and good luck with player fitness and form, but recent results should enable a better seeding.

It's easy to get carried away after such a long time of scraps and defeats. It's a time for reflection and building for 2020.

Oi Suomi on.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Euro 2016 - too little, too late

The list is getting smaller. More people are RSVPing to the invitation. Despite the break-up of Europe in the last quarter of a century, these latecomers are promptly accepting. The list of European countries who've never played at a major tournament is getting smaller. Yet Finland remain on that roster.

San Marino.
Faroe Islands.

With 24 teams qualifying for next summer's tournament, it seemed almost harder to fail than to make it. But a lot of countries have risen to the challenge, boosted by confidence and perhaps the (early) complacency of the bigger nations. Iceland and Wales were improving prior to this competition, while Northern Ireland, Austria and Albania qualified ahead of expectations.

Finland's group, at the time of the draw and with the benefit of hindsight, was the best possible. The top seeds were Greece, who'd made the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Hungary and Romania were tough with good (great?) historical teams. Northern Ireland hadn't qualified for anything in 30 years. Faroe Islands are still a level above the true minnows.

After winning the opening match away to Faroe Islands 1-3, the hard way after conceding a sloppy opener, it was all going perfectly to plan. But it was all downhill from there. One point from the next five matches, a draw at home to a dreadful Greek side, was terminal.

In defeats to Hungary home and away, in Belfast and to visiting Romania, Finland looked pedestrian, ponderous and without the perspective to see what was wrong. Mixu Paatelainen was the manager with the backing of the Finnish FA, but looked utterly clueless and left behind while other sides played to their strengths. He persisted with the Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), designed almost to hamstring the players rather than improve them. A good coach should make the team better than the sum of their parts - how can a side with Roman Eremenko, Tim Sparv and Niklas Moisander look so impotent? The blind faith is admirable, but did Teemu Pukki do enough to deserve his regular starting place? 

Paatelainen was sacked after the Hungary defeat in June, where a very public recruitment process led to former New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe's appointment - but not until January as he had more pressing television commitments (he'll do well in Finland with that). Long time assistant Markku Kanerva stepped into the breach, to his credit he did well with two wins followed by two draws.

Maybe it was due to the handbrake being removed, or the players being allowed more freedom in those four fixtures. The side moved to a 4-4-2, Pohjanpalo scoring three times and there seemed a bit more vibrancy. Despite the loss of Eremenko to injury, Moisander only featuring once and suspensions at various points to Sparv, Hetemaj and Halsti; there was more positivity and it's got to be a good sign at the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser in Bucharest.

The Olympiastadion is now closed for renovations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will all be played at the Ratina stadium in Tampere. It's a much tougher group (Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey) with only one guaranteed qualifier. Due to the poor performances under Mixu, Finland's FIFA ranking dropped so low that they are the bottom seed in that group. Had the draw been made with October's rankings, Finland could have been as high as third seeds.

Most of the players (if not all) will still be available for selection come September 2016, while the year will give extra development time to prospects like Thomas Lam and Jere Uronen. Lukas Hradecky and Pohjanpalo cemented their places as starters and the U21s have made a decent start to qualifying for their Euro adventure.

Ultimately the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is a failure. Mixu should have been relieved of his job earlier, if not after before. I don't know a lot about Hans Backe, my main doubt is of the FA's selection process, going for an easy option, possibly the cheapest. Kanerva restored some pride and performances, it's unclear yet if he'll remain on Backe's staff.

Onwards and upwards, OI SUOMI ON!