Teemu Pukki hung back toward the corner of the penalty area. The ball was about to be delivered into the middle of the box, and it was as if the Norwich striker knew where it was going to be cleared.
Sure enough, a defender’s header went straight to Pukki, who met it with a powerful volley that flew inside the near post.
The “Pukki Party” — as it’s becoming known on social media — was just getting started.
It was the first of three goals scored by the Finland international in Norwich’s 3-1 win over Newcastle at the weekend, lifting his tally to four over the first two rounds of the Premier League season.
Pukki is the first player in Premier League history to score that many in his first two games in the competition. Not for 21 years had a player scored a hat trick on his first home Premier League appearance.
Pukki is a journeyman striker no more.
Now, he’s is the Premier League’s leading scorer and an unlikely sensation in the world’s most-watched division. Chelsea, still without a win under new manager Frank Lampard, is up next for Pukki and Norwich on Saturday.
“He finds the space. He knows when the time is right to go forward and when to stay,” said Jari-Pekka Gummerus, who was a junior coach when a 12-year-old Pukki joined KTP, a club from the Finnish town of Kotka on the coast of the Baltic Sea.
“The moves he made, the amount of goals he scored, it was exceptional,” Gummerus added in a phone interview. “You thought, ‘OK, this guy has something else.'”
Just ask Virgil van Dijk and the rest of the defenders at Liverpool, the European champion and the team with the tightest backline in the Premier League last season.
Liverpool played Norwich at Anfield in the opening match of the Premier League season. The 4-1 scoreline flattered the home side, with Norwich managing 12 shots — nearly as many as Liverpool. Pukki scored in the second half from a well-worked move and was a constant nuisance for the defense, sometimes dropping between the lines or out wide to drag defenders out of position and link up play.
Indeed, Pukki’s movement and work rate has been as impressive as his goals. Against Newcastle, he sprinted back 70 meters after Norwich lost possession high upfield and nicked the ball off Joelinton as the Brazilian forward broke on the counterattack.
“He really embodies the spirit of the team,” Norwich manager Daniel Farke said. “No one is thinking about themselves.”
It is a trait Gummerus remembers, too.
“Modest,” is how he described Pukki as a kid. “He didn’t want to make a big (deal) of himself. Even now, he is just doing his job.”
It has taken Pukki more than a decade to really live up to the promise he showed as a teenager at KTP, for whom he made his debut at 16 as the youngest player ever start a match in Finland’s top league. He was thin, had long hair — Gummerus recalled — and was very shy.
Such was his potential that he earned a move to Spanish club Sevilla in 2008 — his mother was there with him in the early months — but he mostly played for its reserve team in a two-year spell that ended with a return to Finland with HJK Helsinki.
Then came spells at Schalke in Germany (2011-13) and Celtic in Scotland (2013-14) where he didn’t perform as he’d hoped, before spending four years at Brondby in Denmark.
Norwich picked him up as a free agent in the 2018 offseason, and playing in England has brought out the best out of him. Pukki was top scorer in the second-tier Championship last season with 29 goals — he also managed 10 assists in all competitions — as Norwich finished top to return to the Premier League after a three-year absence.
Even with Finland, he has grown in stature this past year, scoring decisive goals in five competitive internationals in the last 12 months — three Nations League games and two European Championship qualifiers.
“There is massive interest in him, especially in Kotka but in the whole of Finland,” Gummerus said. “Everyone is anticipating how many goals he is going to score. People are very excited.
“We keep in contact with him. Of course, it means a lot to him where he is originally from. He doesn’t forget his roots.”
With a Viking beard to offset his thin top, the 29-year-old Pukki has a rather rugged appearance that hardly marks him out as a superstar.
His early-season scoring exploits certainly do.
By STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer