Finland are banking on Roy Hodgson's defensive nous to get them to UEFA EURO 2008™ – but they must first negotiate Saturday's test against Belgium in Brussels.
Second in Group A behind Poland, but with Portugal and Serbia on their coat-tails, Finland need a win to keep ahead of the chasing pack and cement their bid to qualify for a first major finals. If the 60-year-old Hodgson earned a reputation as a miracle-worker by guiding Switzerland to the 1994 FIFA World Cup and EURO '96™, steering Finland to UEFA EURO 2008™ would top that.
His reputation in England may have been tarnished by a disappointing spell with Blackburn Rovers FC in 1997 and 1998, but in Finland he has shown an extraordinary ability to construct effective teams. The statistics speak for themselves: in eleven Group A qualifiers, they have conceded just six goals.
"In this qualifying campaign we have defended maybe better than ever before," said experienced Liverpool FC centre-back Sami Hyypiä. "And I don't mean just the defenders but the whole team. We defend as a team and attack as a team." He added: "The key players have played together for years. It's easy to play with players you know thoroughly. It doesn't take much shouting on the pitch."
This solid defensive ethos and the benefits of an experienced group have been much in evidence, although Fulham FC goalkeeper Antti Niemi – newly restored to the squad having retired from international football before Hodgson's appointment in 2006 – also believes the much-travelled coach brings crucial elements to Finland's game.
"My first training session with Mr Hodgson was on Tuesday and it was good," said the 35-year-old, who has 66 caps for his country. "He explained quite clearly what he wanted from us, and the other players seem to have learned these instructions well over the last two years. When things are said clearly and with authority, it certainly helps."
The only shortcoming of Hodgson's men is their scoring record – they average exactly one goal a game. Yet, although a victory is required in Belgium, Hyypiä sees no need to mess with the formula. "We have created chances in every match with the exception of Serbia in Belgrade," he said. "Defence is the key. We will get chances on Saturday. We just have to take them."
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