A place at Euro 2020 is within touching distance for Finland following their 1-0 win over Greece on Thursday.
They sit second in Group J thanks to three wins in a row and a glorious home record – which has included clean-sheets in each of their last nine home games.
There’s just three points separating them from group-leaders Italy and, more importantly, five clear of third-place Bosnia and Herzegovina.
For a team that’s NEVER qualified for a major tournament before, this is about as big as it gets.
Lead by in-form super-striker Teemu Pukki, they head into Sunday’s home clash at Tampere against the Italians with genuine hope of coming away with all three points.
What’s more, the Azzurri – while unbeaten in their qualifying group with five wins out of five – are still a far-cry from side that reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2016.
They struggled to breakdown and beat a stubborn Armenia on Thursday after requiring a late goal to beat Bosnia and Herzegovina back in June, while recent injuries to Lorenzo Insigne and captain Giorgio Chiellini have only made things trickier.
Finland have never come this close to qualifying for the European championships before.
The generation of Antti Niemi (he’s Finnish, after all), Sami Hyypia, Teemu Tainio and Mikael Forssell, as well as an ageing Jari Litmanen, came within a whisker of going to Euro 2008 under the management of Roy Hodgson, but fell within just three points of reaching the tournament in Austria and Switzerland.
There’s no such household names this time around (aside from Pukki), although the defensive partnership of Paulus Arajuuri and Joona Toivio, combined with the safe hands of Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, deserve plenty of plaudits for creating such a steely defence, while young striker Jasse Tuominen could be one for the future.
Success has been a long time coming for the Finns.
For generations, they’ve been forced to sit back and watch their Nordic neighbours become staples of the footballing world stage; from Denmark’s shock triumph at Euro 1992 and Sweden’s third-place at the 1994 World Cup, all the way through to Iceland’s appearance at Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup.
But things began to look up under the current management of Markku Kanerva, who inherited a team that had scored just four goals and won none of their games in 2016, while finishing second-from-bottom in their World Cup qualifying group – having been outplayed by the likes of Iceland and Croatia; two nations with much smaller populations than their own.
But their current group of players stunned during the recent UEFA Nations League tournament, finishing top of League C’s ‘Group 2’ with only three goals conceded in their six games.
Of course, like the final two games of their Nations League campaign – which saw them lose to both Greece and Hungary – everything could still unravel in the latter stages.
Their final match of Group J sees them travel back to Athens in November, and while they’re hoping to be in a commanding position in the group by then, it could certainly all change.
But even so, Finland would still be able to enter the play-offs having won Nations League C.
Pukki Party in Helsinki, anyone?