Finland head coach Marko Saloranta and Natalia Kuikka at this evening's pre-match press conference. Ryan Byrne/INPHO
finnish line

Finland see themselves as underdogs for showdown against 'very good' Ireland

The Finns’ struggles have been well-documented, but tomorrow could be the start of something new under interim manager Marko Saloranta.

FINLAND INTERIM MANAGER Marko Saloranta believes his side are underdogs for tomorrow’s decisive World Cup qualifier against Ireland at Tallaght Stadium.

“Yeah, I think so,” he told a pre-match press conference in Dublin this evening. Girls In Green boss Vera Pauw contrastingly insisted last week, “I don’t see us as favourites”.

“Ireland is higher than we are in the Fifa rankings at the moment, and in this group they are higher than we are — okay, one point only, and we lost back home in October,” Saloranta continued today.

“Ireland has played extremely well in this group, for example taking a point from Sweden. It will be a tough evening, and a very, very important game for them and for us.

“Still, I think it will be quite an even game. We had our chances [against Ireland in Helsinki, the game ended 2-1], we just need to improve some things that were missing in the first game in Finland, and bring something new.”

Screen Shot 2022-08-29 at 18.27.08 Uefa. Uefa.

Ireland’s play-off rivals and Group A’s second seeds come into tomorrow’s showdown with U17 manager Saloranta in temporary charge.

A winless Euros tournament ultimately cost Anna Signeul, with the long-time Finland U16 and U17 head coach taking the reins for this must-win encounter amidst no shortage of upheaval.

“I’ve been in the job four weeks,” Saloranta said, reflecting on the baptism of fire. “I was U17 coach still four weeks ago, and now we have trained three times together here. There are many things that we want to improve, but of course, everyone who is part of football knows that in three sessions, there’s not many things you can do.

“Still, I feel we have improved in some points what we wanted. Of course, for the players and for me, it will be a tough night, but I think we have a chance to take the points. But we need to be on a very good level.”

Pressed on tomorrow’s outcome — Finland host runaway group winners Sweden in their final clash next week – Saloranta stressed: “We need to win. If we win it’s still in our own hands. A draw, there is some chance but I expect Ireland will take the victory in Slovakia. If we win then it’s in our own hands, then we need a good result against Sweden and we don’t need to think about what’s happening in Slovakia.”

Joined by Natalia Kuikka at this evening’s press conference at Tallaght Stadium, the experienced defender explained that she was not surprised by Ireland in this campaign.

“No. I know some of the players on the team, I know they’re really good and they have a good team. You can’t really expect anything in these tournaments. I’m not surprised, but it just means that we have to play even better and harder tomorrow to beat a good Ireland team.

“Ireland is a really fast and aggressive team so we have to be mindful of their transitions. They have really good players in the middle and up top — and also in defence.”

Saloranta agreed, adding: “Also they have been very, very good in set-pieces. In their own penalty box and our penalty box, they are very aggressive. They are so tough. They’ve been very good in this group.”

Kuikka says Finland’s main goal is to win, with last October’s defeat to Ireland in Helsinki admittedly one they were not prepared for, but now “fuel”.

natalia-kuikka-competes-in-the-air-with-jamie-finn Kuikka facing Jamie Finn in Helsinki. Kalle Parkkinen / INPHO Kalle Parkkinen / INPHO / INPHO

At this summer’s Euros in England, the Finns lost their three group games, conceded eight goals and scored just one — a first-minute effort from star player Linda Sällström in their opener against Spain as good as it got in Group B against Spain, Denmark and Germany. 

“At the end of the day we need to score goals to win games and we can’t let in as many goals as we did,” Kuikka reflects. “Those are the things we need to work on — it’s always the thing we have to work on.

“There’s no specific things we failed, but at the end of the day it’s about the scores and those individual games. I know everybody did their best. We worked our hardest in these games. Obviously we had really tough opponents. I’m really proud of the team and how hard we tried to win. We stayed true to ourselves.

“I’d say we are pretty much the same team, but also even better, just because of all the lessons that we learned from that tournament, where we are as a team compared to other European teams. That was really good for us to know where we are at, and now we know how to get there. I would say we are coming even stronger now because we know where we are and how far we have to go to be at the top.”

And both manager and player see tomorrow’s showdown as the potential start of something new and exciting, the notion of this ageing team nearing the end of a cycle well-worn at this stage.

“We have some new players in the team and we have some old ones,” Kuikka said. “It’s a normal cycle in national teams, bringing new players in and some of the older ones returning. It could be something new and fresh.

“At the end of the day we still have a chance to make it to a World Cup. We just need to continue working on the things we are good at, and also improve on the things we need to improve on. Winning tomorrow would be a good spark.”

“Finland was the second oldest team at the Euros,” Saloranta concluded. “We have totally new players now coming in. Still we have that experience. Some players have played three Euros finals tournaments so we have experienced players and young players.

“All the players coming in, they are that level where they should be coming in. They are not coming to learn things they are ready to play. We have a chance (to show) this is a new start.”

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