Finland are suffering from the usual injury worries, with Teemu Tainio and Mika Väyrynen out, but Jari Litmanen’s fitness is a welcome boost for Stuart Baxter. The FC Lahti striker, who scored the first ever goal at the Millenium stadium in 2000, has recovered from a clash of heads that saw him withdraw midway through Lahti’s League Cup tie against HJK Helsinki on Saturday.
The Finnish squad have been cautious in their public statements so far, emphasising that Finland must first and foremost avoid defeat in Cardiff. Respect has been paid to the young, vibrant Welsh team they will face, and with Tim Sparv called up to replace Tainio, it looks as though Finland will try to show a youthful face too. Stuart Baxter has stated that he does not want to include under-21 players in the squad if they don’t have a role to play, so it should be assumed that Sparv will be involved at some point on Saturday. With left winger Joonas Kolkka also out, the Finns could field a very youthful midfield by their standards.
The Finnish squad have been giving interviews about their progress with their various clubs, and memories of Wales. To recap: Forsell remembers scoring against Wales, Shefki Kuqi has defeated Colin’s attempts to force him out at Crystal Palce and will take a coaching course next summer, and Petri Pasanen knows that Wales are a dangerous team and that Bellamy will want to score in front of his home crowd. Eremenko has been talking about the need to avoid defeat, a theme touched upon by Litmanen too.
The Welsh squad are talking about the game as a must win, by contrast, but they have struggled to shift tickets for the match. Just 15,000 have been sold, and the Welsh camp have admitted that the atmosphere will not help their team:
“We have to make our own atmosphere. Much has been said about it. We can’t drag people in the stadium. We have got to do it by results,” said (Wales Assistant manager Roy) Evans.
“We feel we have improved over the years now and we are getting competitive even against the top teams which is decent.
“But like anything you have to start winning games and qualifying for these big competitions.”
Evans added: “It doesn’t help. I have to say that, going out into a massive stadium with a small crowd.
“But we have to be professional about it. The only way we are going to change that is by being successful.”
Baxter has talked a lot about Finland’s identity as a footballing nation, and now is the time when he really has to show his hand. In their last big game Finland failed miserably against Russia, but the time before that an up-tempo and aggressive Finland gave Germany several frights and really should have won. It probably will not pay off to sit back and defend on Saturday, but without Väyrynyn to lead a pressing midfield and break forward quickly it could be hard to reproduce as vibrant a performance as the one Finland put in against Germany last September.
Roman Eremenko has really come of age in central midfield, and the 20 year old will anchor Finland’s attacks for many years to come. He is a very classy player, and should not be moved around to accommodate others – the experiment of playing him out wide against Portugal failed miserably. That him and Heikkinen have solidified their place while older or more established players have been injured is testament to their determination, but the question is always who is going to play around them.
The Finnish defence looks creaky. Up against Bellamy, they will need to use all their experience to nullify the Welsh attack’s pace, and avoid sitting as deep as they did against Russia. That just invited pressure, and allowed Arshavin to exploit the space, gaps and uncertainty in the Finnish defence. Jason Koumas is likely to sit deeper behind Bellamy, and although the Wigan man is not in Arshavin’s league, he will have watched the Russia-Finland game with interest. Wales will start with Evans, Ramsey and Cotterill waiting to come on and run at tired Finnish defenders.
If Litmanen does not start the game, Eremenko Jr could take his place and Sjölund come in on the left wing. Otherwise, this is how I expect Finland to line up:
Pasanen Tihinen Hyypiä Kallio
Johansson Eremenko Heikkinen Eremenko Jr
Incidentally, Baxter’s return to Britain has prompted some coverage of an unually cosmopolitan character, for a British coach. Here’s one such piece from the Guardian.