Finland 2 Belgium 0: Owl right on the night
Uninvited visitor almost overshadows the Eremenko Brothers' show
By William Moore
First the facts. In front of a near-capacity crowd of 34,818, Finland rebounded from a dreadful performance against Serbia with a 2-0 win against a rather mediocre and insipid Belgian side.
Jonatan Johansson and Alexei Eremenko Jr. provided the goals, and the Finns did the business very efficiently with a line-up that lacked several famous names, including stalwarts Sami Hyypiä and Jari Litmanen.
Coach Roy Hodgson must have realised what 33,000 unhappy fans realised on Saturday: something had to change.
And change it did. Hodgson gave a first full cap to 20-year-old Roman Eremenko and brought back his elder brother Alexei after suspension, and between the two of them they restored quite a lot of faith in the Finnish ability to pass accurately, hold the ball up, and find players in space.
All the hopeful long balls whacked over a midfield missing in action were gone, and there was a bright and focused look to the play. It was a completely different team out there, and I’m not sure it was all down to their facing weaker opposition.
To some extent Hodgson’s rethink was forced upon him by the loss of Litmanen and Teemu Tainio through injury and Hyypiä because of a one-match suspension. These absences were a blessing in disguise, as what we saw was an eager younger team willing to shoulder responsibility and play to their strong suits.
Roman Eremenko made a very impressive debut. After a few hesitant minutes where he sought to find his feet with the grown-ups, he hit nary a loose pass, tackled like a Jack Russell terrier, and linked up so seamlessly with Markus Heikkinen, Mika Väyrynen, and others around him that he seemed like an old-timer. He is one to watch.
His brother Alexei can be an infuriating player, loaded with talent and drive but sometimes selfish and with an obvious off-button when he gets frustrated. Against Belgium, however, he was in his element, given a measure of space that he probably would not have enjoyed against the Serbs. He worked his socks off and fully deserved his man-of-the-match rating and the ovation he received when he was replaced by Mikael Forssell with a few minutes left on the clock.
At the back, Hodgson was without not only Sami Hyypiä but also his deputy Toni Kuivasto, who picked up a late injury in training. Hannu Tihinen took the captaincy, and was joined in the centre of defence by Petri Pasanen.
It wasn’t always silky smooth, but Pasanen - who normally plays at right back for Finland - acquitted himself well enough in a position he is quite accustomed to occupying at club level. Ari Nyman took Pasanen’s vacant spot and Toni Kallio was on the left.
In the first half there were a few worrying leaks, but Manchester City’s Emile Mpenza was never given enough space and time to do any real damage in front of Jussi Jääskeläinen’s goal.
The first Finnish goal came after 27 minutes, following good work on the left. Toni Kallio fed Joonas Kolkka, who scuttled past Philippe Clement and crossed to Johansson on the edge of the box. Johansson spun round, wrong-footed the Belgian captain Timmy Simons, and struck the ball sweetly into the left corner. Goalkeeper Stijn Stijnen got a hand on it, but it was not enough.
The second strike, twenty minutes from the end, was also partly Johansson’s doing. He fought tenaciously to get the ball across to Alexei Eremenko Jr. at the right hand corner of the penalty area, and after shrugging off one defender Eremenko shot hard and high between the keeper and the near post.
Finland won, and took three vital points with an encouraging display, but in all honesty they were helped a bit by Belgium’s lethargy and poor finishing, and by the two yellow cards that brought the dismissal of Marouane Fellaini after 51 minutes.
This being said, it was somewhat strange that - to this viewer at least - Finland looked more penetrating against eleven men than they did against ten.
For long periods around the hour-mark they seemed content to pile up passes (accompanied by happy “Olés” and Mexico waves from the crowd) without really going anywhere.
This is all very well, as if you have the ball the other team does tend to find it difficult to score, but 1-0 is a very unsafe haven to be in. A little more killer instinct and an earlier second goal would have put the hosts into the comfort zone they seemed to want that bit more quickly - and with much more justification. .
Belgium were a far cry from their glory days in the 1980s and 1990s, when they were a regular fixture in the World Cup finals. As recently as 2000 they were ranked 16th on the FIFA lists, but on Wednesday’s showing they fully deserve to be just as many rungs below Finland on the football ladder.
Even before Johansson scored, the Finnish national side got a gift goal, in that Armenia pulled off an upset and beat Poland 1-0.
Despite their defeat, the Poles still lead the group, but their recent invincibility and certainty of qualifying has taken a dent.
As the teams in Group A head for their summer holidays, Poland have 19 points from nine matches, while Portugal, Serbia, and Finland all have 14 points, but the Finns have played eight games to the seven of the other two. Belgium are right out of it, with just seven points from eight appearances, and they even have little Armenia snapping at their heels. The bottom two teams, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, shared a 1-1 draw on Wednesday.
When things restart on August 22nd, Finland have a home tie against Kazakhstan in Tampere, while Portugal make the long trip to Armenia (and probably feel less happy about it after hearing tonight’s result), and Belgium host the Serbs.
Naturally the Finns will be hoping for help from Belgium and Armenia in those matches, but it is really up to them, too. It looks increasingly as though they will have to get a result against Serbia or Portugal away from home and not drop any points in their remaining home fixtures with Poland, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan if they are to secure a place in the top two.
Still, things are looking up a bit, and with luck, Roy Hodgson will have a fully-fit squad and selection problems of a different colour in the autumn: it is not often a Finland coach has an excess of suitable names to write on the starting-list.
Oh, and the silly headline? Well, the man of the match award could easily have gone to a player who was not listed on either of the team-sheets.
Referee Mike Riley has probably seen quite a lot of things during a career in the English Premiership, but I wouldn’t mind betting he has never encountered the situation he faced after 19 minutes of the first half.
A majestic eagle owl (Bubo bubo), which apparently lives in the Olympic Stadium, clearly felt the Finns needed to play the ball out wide more, and flew down from its perch atop the main grandstand and sat on the grass.
He was in acres of space, and in a sort of right midfield position. Nobody passed to him, but the game ground to a juddering halt.
Lest you think that one of the players should have trotted over and shooed the bird away, it should be mentioned that the eagle owl is not a pigeon or a gull, it is a BIG beast, nearly as large as a golden eagle, with a wingspan of up to two metres, and this one was playing at home, remember.
I’m not sure any of the players DARED tangle with it, and Mike Riley certainly wasn’t showing it any yellow or red cards. Graham Poll would have done, but he wasn’t here.
The ref called time out, the players - especially the Belgians - stood and goggled, the crowd roared in delight, and the owl responded to their cheers by performing a few leisurely low-level laps around the arena, with pauses in between when he perched on the crossbar at each end. Thirty thousand voices boomed out a new chant - “Huuhkaja! Huuhkaja!” - the name of the species in Finnish.
After making its point, the big bird sat down quietly on a wooden construction behind the Finnish goal and watched the proceedings for a while, as the press photographers snapped away at it. Security staff kept a wary distance. Play recommenced after a six-minute delay.
After Johansson scored, the owl presumably figured the match was a done deal, provided the Finnish midfield quartet could keep up their early domination, and he disappeared.
Someone said he probably flew over to Tallinn to spy on the Estonia-England game.
I’m pretty sure many will be hoping the handsome creature makes an appearance for the Poland match in September.
Perhaps the Finnish branch of the WWF or the Finnish Nature League could be persuaded to become a sponsor of the national side?
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland face further injury woes ahead of Belgium game (6.6.2007)