Finland 2 Kazakhstan 1 (1-1): Not pretty, but the three points are welcome
Group A tantalisingly poised after setbacks for Portugal and Serbia
Finland did just enough in Tampere on Wednesday to defeat Kazakhstan 2-1 and keep alive their hopes of progressing from Group A of the UEFA 2008 European Championships qualifiers.
The Finns were not exactly at their best, and struggled to break down a stubborn but not particularly talented Kazakhstan side.
After Alexei Eremenko Jr. neatly lobbed the visitor's goalkeeper from the right-hand edge of the penalty area on 13 minutes, following good work by Jonatan Johansson, it might have been expected that the hosts would take control and improve their goal difference against a team ranked 80 places below them on the FIFA tables. Finland overcame Kazakhstan 2-0 without much trouble in Almaty last October.
However, the Kazakhstan keeper David Loria pulled off a couple of big saves from Joonas Kolkka and Toni Kallio, and the next goal came uncomfortably at the other end of the field.
Aleksandr Kuchma sent over a nicely weighted cross from the right and Dmitri Byakov - not one of the tallest players on the field - rose to head home. Jussi Jääskeläinen in the Finnish goal must take some of the blame, as the ball should really have been gobbled up.
The visitors took heart from the equaliser, and Finland were made to look very ordinary for the remainder of the first half.
Coach Roy Hodgson brought on Daniel Sjölund for a rather off-colour Roman Eremenko after the break, and things picked up somewhat.
When Finland eventually scored on the hour through Teemu Tainio, it was only deserved: minutes before, both Sjölund and Johansson had stretched Loria's ability and his share of luck.
The goal was a slightly messy affair, but they all count. A corner from the right was prodded on by a Kakakh defender to where Tainio was waiting at the corner of the six-yard box, and he rammed the ball in on the bounce.
Thereafter, the Finns should once more have gone for the jugular, but Loria denied Sjölund and Eremenko Jr. again.
Still, there were at least no really anxious moments in front of Jääskeläinen's goal, except one sharp free-kick that he dealt with comfortably enough.
The only setback of note was the loss of Toni Kallio for the next game, after he picked up a booking. As Hodgson is well aware, left-backs are unfortunately rather thin on the ground in Finland.
The crowd of 13,000 - fewer than turned out to see Tampere United lose to Rosenborg last week - did not get a feast of football, but Hodgson's men at least did what they were supposed to do, and collected the compulsory three points.
And thereby hangs a tale, and the REAL football drama of the night.
The Finnish fans will today be cheering the mighty men of Armenia, who held Portugal to a 1-1 draw at home in Yerevan. The Armenians, who frustrated Finland in a 0-0 stalemate back in October of last year, have proved it was no fluke, as they also defeated group leaders Poland last time out in June.
Since Portugal - the ante-post favourites in Group A after their 4th place in the last World Cup - were level on points with Finland before yesterday's games, these two dropped points were a very nice windfall indeed for Roy Hodgson.
In fact, almost as nice as the three points dropped by Serbia against a resurgent Belgium, who came through 3-2 in Brussels to record only their third win in nine UEFA 2008 qualifying matches. Serbia, too, were level with the Finns, and had inflicted a nasty defeat on Finland in the Olympic Stadium in June.
Hodgson's comments last year, before a ball was kicked in this competition, to the effect that it was only to be expected that the fancied teams would drop points to the minnows and that there would be upsets along the way, are proving to be remarkably prescient.
Group A is now delicately poised, with nobody able to feel supremely confident that they can progress as winners or runners-up.
Poland are still out in front, with 19 points from nine games. They are two ahead of Finland, who have also played nine, and will host the Poles in Helsinki next month.
Portugal and Serbia have a game in hand, but are on 15 and 14 points respectively, and - quite significantly - they have to play each other.
If the minnows (and Belgium, whose chances of qualifying must surely have gone, regardless of Wednesday's result) can continue to thwart the aspirations of the Poles, the Serbs, and the Portuguese, and if Finland can somehow avoid slipping on any similar banana skins, then there is still an outside chance that home fans might be able to follow the side to Austria and Switzerland next year.
But there is only so much that other legs can do: a great deal will depend on how the Finns themselves cope with their next hurdles, a difficult trip to Belgrade on September 8th and the arrival of Poland four days later. Four points from those matches, and we might have ourselves a ball-game this autumn.
Yes, it's a big "might".
Finland: Jussi Jääskeläinen (caution, 80.); Petri Pasanen, Hannu Tihinen, Sami Hyypiä (captain), Toni Kallio (caution, 83); Teemu Tainio (77. Aki Riihilahti), Roman Eremenko (45. Daniel Sjölund), Markus Heikkinen (caution, 56.), Joonas Kolkka (89. Mika Nurmela); Alexei Eremenko Jr., Jonatan Johansson.
Coach: Roy Hodgson
Goalscorers: Alexei Eremenko Jr. (1-0, 13.); Dmitri Byakov (1-1, 23.); Teemu Tainio (2-1, 61.)
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hungary)
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland 2 Belgium 0: Owl right on the night (7.6.2007)