Beaten in Baku

The excitement has been building here since last autumn. The Finnish national team beat Poland away in their first qualifier for Euro 2008, and since then the media and fans have been wondering how they might contrive to mess it all up. Finland has form in this area. The goal machine that is Shefki Kuqi has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory before, and the Hungary game in 1997 still traumatises some Finns. Finland needed a win to get to a playoff for World Cup qualification, were leading 1-0 in injury time and conceded a ridiculous ricocheting own goal from a corner.

So there is now a lot of doom and gloom over the 1-0 defeat in Azerbaijan this week. Roy’s boys got a draw in Armenia in October, but they played very well and were unlucky not to get the win, so nobody was too bothered. After Wednesday’s results Finland have an uphill struggle, depending on other teams dropping points in the Caucasus. If Poland and Portugal hold their nerve, they should have an Alpine summer in 2008.

Which is a shame really, as this Finland team is about as good as it will be for a while. Sami Hyypiä is getting on a bit, as some Premiership commentators have noted. Jari Litmanen is 37 and still as fragile as ever, so it’s difficult to see him lasting another 3 years until the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. A Finland without Litmanen is another, much poorer team. Without him they lost to Northern Ireland and only just beat Armenia in Helsinki, but worse than the results is the lack of options. Litmanen can slow the game down, speed it up, find players from a tight spot and keep the ball in the attacking third.

So the current level of anticipation is mixed with a certain ‘now or never’ anxiety, a sense that this may be Finland’s last chance for a long time. How they deal with the pressure-now at it’s highest since they beat poland-will determine whether or not they make it.

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