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Finland ready to take flight

Published: Wednesday 12 September 2007, 6.44CET
A sell-out crowd will fill the Olympiastadion on Wednesday hoping for a Finland triumph over Poland in Group A - and the reappearance of a lucky mascot.
by Mikael Erävuori
from Helsinki
 
Published: Wednesday 12 September 2007, 6.44CET

Finland ready to take flight

A sell-out crowd will fill the Olympiastadion on Wednesday hoping for a Finland triumph over Poland in Group A - and the reappearance of a lucky mascot.

Finland's UEFA EURO 2008™ qualifying campaign has confounded many, not least the nation's ornithologists, and should they claim victory against Poland in Helsinki they would go top of Group A with three games to go. It is being billed as the most important match in Finnish footballing history and 36,500 fans are expected at the Olympiastadion, hoping for a win – and the reappearance of a lucky mascot.

Lucky owl
After a strong start to qualifying, Roy Hodgson's team appeared to be faltering after seven qualifiers when successive defeats by Azerbaijan and Serbia left them struggling to keep apace with the section leaders. A win against Belgium in June would get them back on track but that did not appear likely early on as they struggled to get a grip on the game – then a large owl swooped down into the stadium. Depending where you are in the world owls signify anything from misfortune to prosperity and thankfully for the home side it turned out to be the latter. After a delay of several minutes the owl settled behind the Finland goal and soon after Jonatan Johansson scored at the other end to set his side on course for a 2-0 triumph.

'Final step'
"I don't know about the owl's whereabouts," said goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen. "Some think it brings us luck, but I think luck is something you earn after years of hard work." That is certainly true of Finland and has born dividends this campaign, with results such as Wednesday's impressive goalless draw away to Serbia becoming commonplace. The stalemate left them second in Group A, two points behind Poland but two clear of third-placed Portugal, though Luiz Felipe Scolari's team have a game in hand. "Just thinking about the teams behind us, we have already achieved a lot," said Johansson. "However, there's still the final step to take and I hope we can go all the way."

'Big opportunity'
That would represent a historic first for the Finns, who have never before appeared in a major finals. "We have every chance with just four matches to play; this is a rare moment in Finnish football history," said defender Petri Pasanen. "The Poland match is a big opportunity for us." The supporters do not need to be told and are expected to turn out in droves, further strengthening their hopes. "We'll play in front of a full stadium, which is superb. I just hope it will be a great night for players and fans alike and that we can give them a reason to celebrate," said Toni Kallio, who returns from suspension. Mika Väyrynen is doubtful with a calf injury but even if he, like the owl, is absent on Wednesday Finland are confident this is their time.

 
Last updated: 12/09/07 18.44CET

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