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Sunday 26 Mar 2023
O’Neill believes Finland will be ‘dangerous opponents’

Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill is well aware that Finland will be a very different proposition in Belfast tonight than San Marino were last week.

His side got their UEFA Euro 2024 qualification campaign off to a solid start with a 2-0 win over San Marino at the Serravalle Stadium on Thursday.


But he realises Finland, second seeds in Group H, will be a much tougher nut to crack at the National Football Stadium at Windsor Park (7.45 start).

The Finns lost their opening group game 3-1 away to top seeds Denmark, however they were only undone by a couple of late goals in Copenhagen.

Home matches are all-important in qualification campaigns. You have to win home games if you are going to have an impact within a group

O’Neill has prepared for the game with his usual attention to detail.

He told the media yesterday: "We have to play with a tempo and energy. We are going to have to defend more than we did in the previous game and retain the good organisation which we demonstrated (against San Marino).

"We will probably need to be a little bit more clinical and creative in the final third of the pitch, but we may find that a little bit easier because I believe there will be more space than on Thursday.

"We also need someone to step up and stick the ball in the net. Dion (Charles) did that in the previous game and he and Conor (Washington) will be itching to get on the scoresheet again."


During the traditional press conference on the day before match day he also said striker Teemu Pukki is the dangerman for the Finns, adding that they possess other attackers who can inflict damage.

And he namechecked Robin Lod, who plays in the MLS in America for Minnesota United. He is Finland’s main creative force in midfield and known for his range of passing and goalscoring prowess.

Pukki is Finland’s all-time leading scorer. The Norwich City forward came into this international window with 37 goals to his name.

Finland typically play with a back three and usually line up in a 3-5-2 (5-3-2) formation. They play a short passing game but will occasionally vary this approach by playing longer balls to a target forward such as Bayer Leverkusen’s Joel Pohjanpalo or Middlesbrough marksman Marcus Forss, with fellow frontman Pukki adept at running in behind an opposition backline.

They also have a top class goalkeeper in Lukáš Hrádecký, who has won 82 caps. Having been the regular number one for Eintracht Frankfurt between 2015 and 2018 and for Bayer Leverkusen from 2018 to date, he is considered one of the best goalkeepers in the Bundesliga.

In his match day programme notes for tonight’s game, the manager said: “I was pleased with the performance against San Marino on Thursday. We had a good shape and enjoyed plenty of possession, and I was delighted for Dion (Charles) as he carried his club form into the international arena.

“Home matches are all-important in qualification campaigns. You have to win home games if you are going to have an impact within a group.

“It is also essential to get off to a good start in any campaign and we will be going all out to put more points on the board tonight.

“It’s great that we have a full house at the stadium for the visit of Finland, who will be dangerous opponents.”

Experienced defender Craig Cathcart, who reached the 70-cap mark against San Marino, will be leading the team out once again tonight.

The other games in Group H today will see Kazakhstan take on the Danes in Astana and Slovenia play San Marino at home.