Jukka Raitala (32) is set to win his 53rd cap for Finland when they take on Ireland tomorrow in the refurbished Helsinki Olympic Stadium.
The Finns are a point behind their September conquerors Wales, in a tight group which has seen only seven goals scored (three by the Finns) in six matches at the halfway stage.
Both nations find goals a rare commodity so a low scoring draw or narrow victory either way has to be the call. The Irish also have the disappointment of Euros plays-off elimination at the hands of Slovakia to get over, so the Finns probably start as slight favourites. Last month Finland won the Dublin meeting of the sides, 1-0
On Sunday the Impact captain played the full 90 minutes at right-back in a 4-4-2 as Finland, making ten changes from a 1-5 friendly hammering by Poland, defeated Bulgaria (2-0) for the first time in history. It was also only the second-time ever the Finns had scored a competitive goal against their east European opponent.
But plenty of firsts are cropping up in Finnish football at the moment. As well as defeating the Bulgarians, they have a first-ever finals tournament, the 12-month delayed Euro 2020, to look forward to next summer, and their recent victory in Dublin was their first-ever over the Republic of Ireland.
Sunday’s victory was special also for a couple of other reasons. It was the first international soccer match to be hosted at their natural home, the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, in five years following its extensive refurbishment, and it had atmosphere... 6,500 masked fans were allowed to attend the game.
Like Montreal Impact team-mate Lassi Lappalainen, Raitala’s aim now must be to keep up his form in club and international football to ensure inclusion for Finland’s Euro finals squad in 2021. Lappalainen, 10 years Raitala’s junior, may well get another crack at playing in a finals tournament, but this could well be his club captain’s last chance.
Lappalainen of course missed out on the current international trip after picking up a shoulder injury in the battling win away to Columbus Crew last week, a game in which he scored.
One of Raitala’s biggest tests will arrive next month when Finland play a gruelling three games in eight days schedule against France (Paris), Bulgaria (Sofia) and Wales (Cardiff) where he is likely to directly come up against a re-juvenated Gareth Bale.
By then Bale should have a few games under his belt with Tottenham. It will be a stern test for the Impact man, who avoided a previous joust with the Welshman when Impact’s Finns didn’t travel for the September Nations League games. Back then, Wales won 1-0 in Helsinki.
Raitala will miss Impact’s Red Bull Arena dates with New England Revolution tomorrow evening and Inter Miami on Saturday, but should be available for the 24 October meeting with NYCFC in the Bronx.