Finland 0 Holland 4 - a high price to pay for squandered opportunities
Dutch give an object lesson in taking your chances
Head Coach Antti Muurinen
By William Moore
Finland met Holland in a crucial World Cup qualifying match in the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday night. Much was riding on the result, not least the future of the Finnish head coach Antti Muurinen.
A full house of 37,800 paid witness - ultimately almost silent witness if one excludes the exuberant travelling Dutch contingent - to a clinical display of finishing by a Dutch side that only dominated the match in the last fifteen minutes. Nevertheless, the Dutch players took their chances when they were offered, while the Finns did not, and the result was a 4-0 drubbing that leaves The Netherlands at the top of UEFA Group One and Finland's chances of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in the realm of the merely mathematical.
The 4-0 scoreline is what will go into the record books, but it disguises a match that was a good deal more evenly fought. The Finns squandered at least a fistful of chances in front of goal, and even when their shots were on target, there was little to trouble the Dutch captain on the night, keeper Edvin van der Sar.
Finland started brightly enough, playing a 4-5-1 formation with Shefki Kuqi as a lone striker up front. Well supported by Aleksei Eremenko Jr. and Mika Nurmela, Kuqi chased and ran for everything, but despite their winning a couple of corners and having a rather tame shot from Teemu Tainio saved comfortably by van der Sar, the Finnish dominance was more of an irritation than a real threat.
By the same token, the Dutch were not exactly looking dangerous world-beaters, as Sami Hyypiä and Hannu Tiihinen, playing well forward, snuffed out their forays before they could gather any momentum.
The loss of Finland's inspirational captain Jari Litmanen after 28 minutes probably did not help matters, but Litmanen had not contributed a great deal after getting a knock on the thigh quite early on, and his replacement Jonathan Johansson injected some pace into the Finnish attack, if not much accuracy.
Things were nevertheless ticking over quite nicely and the crowd was beginning to get behind the Finns, when along came Ruud van Nistelrooy.
The striker, who had snoozed through the first half-hour, showed everyone precisely why he earns so much with Manchester United. He brought down a high cross on the right-hand side of the box, shrugged off a challenge from Hannu Tiihinen, and fired the ball from a narrow angle past Jussi Jääskeläinen's left hand and into the near top corner.
It was the first clear-cut chance the visitors had had, and of course they took it.
Not so the Finns, unfortunately. Tainio, Tiihinen, Aki Riihilahti , and Kuqi were all offered an opportunity to equalise on either side of the break, and with each missed chance the sighs in the crowd got more exasperated.
Eremenko Jr. went closest with a nice curving shot across the face of the Dutch goal, but even though van der Sar looked beaten, the ball skimmed past the far upright and out of play. Down the other end, meanwhile, a rare Dutch attack saw the ball in the net again, but van Nistelrooy was adjudged to have been offside.
Eremenko Jr. showed good skills on the left in the second half, tackling back when needed and regularly taking on Mario Melchiot (on as a sub for PSV Eindhoven full-back Theo Lucius, who was stretchered away with what looked like a broken leg), but the youngster's delivery was not always up to the same high standard.
He could learn a lesson or two from Robin van Persie, the 21-year-old striker who replaced van Nistelrooy with a quarter of an hour left, at the same time as a half-fit Mikael Forssell entered the fray for the Finns.
Within 60 seconds of his appearance, van Persie, along with Dirk Kuyt and Giovanni van Bronkhorst, turned a spell of Finnish pressure into a 3-on-1 Dutch breakaway that culminated in a crisp exchange of passes to leave Kuyt with an open goal. He gladly stabbed home.
This was such a colossal sucker-punch that it inevitably caused the Finnish heads to drop, and the orange phalanx of Dutch fans massed in the corner of the South Bank provided a stirring display of vocal football culture as they sensed blood.
Blood duly flowed, with veteran Philip Cocu scrambling the ball home in the 85th minute after more good work from van Persie, and the salt was well and truly rubbed in the wound when the Arsenal player capped a fine run-out - on only his second international in an orange shirt - by cutting in from the left and adding a fourth from a narrow angle two minutes later.
On a night when the Czechs (6-1 at home to Macedonia) and Romanians (3-0 at home to Armenia) both won, the defeat leaves Finland several miles adrift in 4th place in Group One.
They have nine points to the 22 and 21 of the Dutch and Czechs respectively, and even if they do have five games to play and at least one match in hand on their betters, the game is up.
Realistically, the best the Finns can hope for is to overhaul the Romanians (who are in 3rd with 16 points from nine games) and to upset the direct qualification chances of the Czechs by taking points off both of them when they arrive here in October for the last two matches of the campaign.
Before then, there will be away fixtures in Macedonia and Andorra and a September home encounter with Macedonia. However, even an improbable clean sweep of all these five games is unlikely to be more than cosmetic damage limitation: Holland still have an easy home match with Andorra in their back pocket and the Czechs entertain Macedonia, and the two top sides must also play each other in Prague, so there are plenty of points left to carry them to Germany or to a play-off place.
It remains to be seen whether Wednesday's defeat signals the exit of head coach Muurinen, who has now led the team through three unsuccessful qualifying campaigns. He was naturally pretty shattered by the result, and by the cruelty of the scoreline. He left the question of his future in other hands.
In fairness, as Muurinen said at the post-match press conference, the team has not lost to any teams ranked below them in the past year, and there are limits to the miracles that one can work with a squad who are often not getting a regular game with their clubs at the highest level. He could have added that having several months of the year when pitches are covered in snow is not a great asset in building football culture.
Nevertheless, Muurinen's position has been rather shaky ever since the tame 2-1 defeat in Bucharest back in August 2004. The Finnish FA had earlier stated he would serve to the end of the World Cup qualifiers, but in a newspaper article earlier this week, the FA's vice-president Pertti Alaja hinted that they would be prepared to meet and act swiftly if things went badly against the Dutch.
Meanwhile, FA President Pekka Hämäläinen was announcing once again on the radio that there would be no change until after the Czech Republic match in October. There seem to be differing opinions within the top echelons of the FA, and not for the first time.
A small demonstration with around 150 participants took place before the game, and there were some banners calling for Muurinen's head on view in and around the stadium. On Thursday morning, Hämäläinen slightly modified his stance and reported that the FA would be meeting to discuss the head coach's future during the week before Midsummer.
Muurinen's contract will in any event apparently not be renewed after the current World Cup campaign, but some have argued that it would be good to allow a new coach some time during the remaining "irrelevant" games to build a team for the future.
Regardless of when he goes, it is unlikely a foreign replacement will be drafted in: the names of Juha Malinen, Ari Hjelm, and Martti Kuusela have all been mentioned by Pertti Alaja as possible successors. Kuusela coached the national side in the 1980s.
Again, whoever gets the job will have some tough questions to resolve: morale is hardly likely to be high, and there are doubts over the continuing international careers of two crucial figures and Finnish footballing icons - Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen.
Hyypiä, 31, was calm enough after the Dutch game, but earlier dropped dark hints at withdrawal from the national squad after the Finns lost 4-3 to the Czech Republic, while 34-year-old Litmanen has 96 caps and may just see out the century before calling it a day.
Replacements will have to be found for these and other players sooner rather than later, and the current crop of youngsters - a fully-fit Forssell aside - are not yet ready to step up.
The coach's job is not a particularly enviable post, particularly when one remembers that in the eyes of the wider public, football matches are usually won by players and lost by managers or coaches.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Big heart, but big mistakes: Czech Republic 4 Finland 3 (29.3.2005)
FA President: Muurinen to continue as coach for World Cup qualifiers (27.8.2004)
UEFA World Cup Qualification Group One