June 17 – Finland simply cannot get past their big neighbours, not even with a round of 16 spot at Euro 2020 at stake. A Bergkamp-esque strike from Aleksei Miranchuk on the stroke of half-time was enough for the dominant hosts to sink their opponents 1-0 and maintain a fighting chance in Group B.
On a bubbly afternoon at the Krevstovsky Stadium, near the Gulf of Finland, local rivals and neighbours Russia and Finland produced an engrossing spectacle courtesy of their contrasting styles with the hosts throwing the kitchen sink at their opponents, who constantly kept eight players at the back.
Finland were marginal favourites, but the Russians had history on their side: in 18 previous encounters Finland recorded just one win, back in 1912 at the Olympics. And that wasn’t a real victory: Finland was still a part of the motherland.
Russia were desperate to erase memories of the harrowing 3-0 defeat at the hands of Belgium in their opening game and embattled coach Stanislav Cherchesov introduced goalkeeper Matvej Safonov, left-back Daler Kuzyaev and striker Aleksei Miranchuk into his starting eleven.
Under pressure, his team delivered in style, playing a high tempo and not thinking twice about storming forward. Magomed Ozdoev snatched at a big opportunity at the far post in the 10th minute and Artem Dzyuba struck the post minute later from an offside position. Russia had 77% of possession inside the first 15 minutes. The tone was set.
The relentless Russians kept coming, producing most danger on the left with the industrious Aleksandr Golovin. On the stroke of half-time, Russia were rewarded for all their endeavor with a moment of magic in the form of a Bergkamp-esque goal from Miranchuk.
Perhaps Finland had also been punished for sitting too deep. In the end, Markku Kanerva’s team simply could no longer resist the Russian pressure. Finland did threaten regularly. In the second minute, winger Raitala robbed Mario Fernandes before producing a weighted cross met by Joel Pohjanpalo whose marvelous diving head found the far corner of the net. It was a copy of his goal against Denmark, but VAR adjudged the Finnish striker to be offside.
Whenever Finland ventured forward, danger ensued. Rangers’ Glen Kamara drove the Finnish attacks and superb defending by Igor Diveyev prevented Pohjanpalo from taking aim again. At the half four mark, talisman Pukki rolled a shot wide.
In the second half, Russia kept the ball for prolonged spells, trying to move Finland around. Their intensity dropped but even so, in transition, a flurry of chances still came their way, but substitute Zhemaletdinov, twice, and Golovin failed to double the host’s lead.
With the clock ticking, Finland didn’t attack much even if Kanerva introduced the attacking-minded Frederik Jensen and asked captain Paulus Arajuuri to move up. There was no last-minute onslaught from the Finnish in search of a crucial draw and point.
At the final whistle, Kanerva, with his fingers, indicated that it had been close. In reality, it hadn’t been. It was a chance to write history for Finland, but instead their conservative approach was rightfully punished.
“We are disappointed,” said Kanerva at a news conference. “We went to the match with the idea of playing for victory and we didn’t succeed. The drama of football was present today with the VAR decision at the beginning. We tried to devastate the Russian team. It was very close. It would have put more pressure on the Russian team. I was satisfied that we got more chances to score than against Denmark.”
Finland play Belgium next on Monday and Russia will meet Denmark in their final Group B game. The Danes return to action today following Christian Eriksen’s collapse when they take on Roberto Martinez’s team in Copenhagen.
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