Stakes are high on Wednesday night as Finland and Russia take on the pitch at Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium for their World Cup 2010 qualifier. With Germany having the upper hand in group 4 and Wales, Azerbaijan and Liechenstein pretty much out of contention, the stage is set for Finland and Russia to seal the fate of the second spot that would mean a place in the play-offs for whichever side claims it.
Both teams have five games left to play, and they will face the same opponents. If no major cock-ups or surprising victories take place, tomorrow’s game may just be decisive. That is the case especially if Russia win, as a five-point lead would be all but unassailable for the Finns. The hosts are underdogs going into the game, but whether that is a good or a bad thing is debatable, given Finland’s recent history against teams that are on better on paper. On the other hand, while the Finnish side rarely suffers a loss against a bigger opponent, they haven’t collected many wins either. They need to embellish that side of the statistic on Wednesday if they want to hop on the plane to South Africa next year.
“There’s always lots of talk about games that we must win”, says Sami Hyypiä in an interview on the Finnish FA’s website, and goes on to admit that there are no alternatives in sight. “If we want to play in the World Cup, we must win games like this one.”
The 35-year old Bayer Leverkusen star is one of Finland’s defensive key men and really needs to put in a performance of the highest quality if the Finns are to keep the Russian strikers at bay and provide the team with a chance to cause an upset. With Aleksandr Kerzhakov, Andrei Arshavin, Pavel Pogrebnjak and Roman Pavlyuchenko all fit to play, the home side must be ready for the dirty work.
“Not many national teams get forward so efficiently when they get the ball”, outlines Hannu Tihinen, Hyypiä’s partner in crime in the defensive line. “They can keep the ball on the ground and still move forward very fast.”
The first meeting between the two sides last October was not an unforgettable experience for the Finns, at least not in the positive sense of the word. Finland never really got going, except in their own end of the field. Petri Pasanen donated Russia a goal on 23 minutes and Veli Lampi scored another own goal in the second half, doubling Russia’s lead. Andrei Arshavin then finished then put the game beyond all doubt in the closing stages. Finland were simply powerless to resist.
“We must not give them the ball and let the distance between our own players grow in order to prevent the opponent from countering”, Tihinen continues. “We lost by three goals in Moscow, and it’s pretty obvious then that there was something wrong with the tactic. They created chances too easily and we can’t let that happen again.”
The importance of the game can be seen outside the pitch as well. The game was sold out in good time, the FA are expecting to welcome thousands of Russians and Finland’s supporters are likely to appear in record numbers behind one of the goals.