Finland 4 Moldova 1 - Job done, pity about the silly goal
Mixu Paatelainen can be well satisfied with the performance of his youngsters; hardcore fans in heated dispute with FA over ban on tifos
By William Moore
Finland beat Moldova comfortably in a Euro 2012 qualifier in the Olympic Stadium on Friday evening, scoring four without reply before getting sloppy at the back and allowing a late consolation goal to the visitors.
Moldova are not exactly giants on the world's footballing stage, but this was a bright showing by a young Finnish team almost unrecognisable from that which went down 2-0 in Chisinau to the same opposition almost exactly one year ago.
Since then we have seen the departure of the head coach Stuart Baxter and the retirement from the international scene of much-capped players like Sami Hyypiä and Jonatan Johansson and - if the tea-leaves are to be read correctly - the talismanic Jari Litmanen as well.
Things did not look that rosy in the first ten minutes on Friday, as a young Finnish outfit struggled to make any impact on a game that - had it gone on like this for the full duration - would have put most of the 9,000 in the arena into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Fortunately a set-piece goal that looked to have come straight from the training ground next door broke the spell after 12 minutes.
A Roman Eremenko corner from the left was flicked on by Mikael Forssell, and Kasper Hämäläinen rose at the far post to plonk the ball firmly into the corner of the net with a strong header.
This settled the players down and for the next twenty minutes they bossed matters, although Moldova occasionally looked as if they might pose a danger on the break, and one free-kick by the visitors went perilously close to the angle of bar and post.
A second goal for Hämäläinen came conveniently just before the interval, courtesy of a nice through ball from Daniel Sjölund, and coach Mixu Paatelainen probably had little more to say at the halfway stage of his home début in charge than "more of the same, please, boys".
Roman Eremenko is now every inch a classy piece of work, and on this showing it is no surprise that the wealthy Russian club Rubin Kazan felt able to shell out a fortune for his services.
Alongside him in midfield, Perparim Hetemaj was also industrious and didn't really put a foot wrong, and basically with a little sharper finishing the hosts could and should have had four by half-time.
Mikael Forssell did hit a post with a screamer that deserved to go in, but otherwise most of the shots on target gave the visiting keeper little trouble, and most of the crosses were over-hit and came to naught.
Forssell, who is still clubless and out of contract despite being up there among the top Euro 2012 goalscorers, got onto the scoresheet again soon after the restart, when wing-back Kari Arkivuo came up on the overlap and was toppled on the edge of the box.
In an interesting example of the UEFA TV information-slot about referees, with its slogan "Now We See More" intoned by the great Pierluigi Collina, the initial decision by Greek referee Anastassios Kakos (to give a free kick just outside the area) was overturned by a few well-chosen words in his earpiece from the assistant referee, after which Kakos pointed instead to the penalty spot.
Forssell buried the kick without much trouble. It was his seventh strike in the current campaign, though I'm sure he and Paatelainen alike would sooner have a few more points than all those goals.
The Finns were now pushing the ball around with some confidence, and the introduction of local Helsinki hero Teemu Pukki after an hour only made things more one-sided.
The new Schalke signing certainly does not lack for confidence on the ball, and he had a couple of decent efforts that went just wide.
Pukki wore the No.10 shirt, which suggested to those in the know that Jari Litmanen, now 40 years of age and the owner of this bit of clothing for more years than one cares to remember, may have played his 137th and last game for his country, unless he pops up for a farewell cameo in a friendly next year.
On 72 minutes, another cross from the left by Roman Eremenko eluded all the Finnish heads but found a Moldova defender (Igor Armas) to conveniently put it into the net for 4-0..
From this point onwards the script went a bit awry: the hosts should by rights have put their foot down and scored a couple more, but they got sloppy and after a couple of alarm signals that went unheeded, they took a sucker punch on the chin as Serghei Alexeev got away from the defence and was one-on-one with goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.
Alexeev made no mistake, but it was really only a cosmetic blemish and the Finns played out the remaining five minutes of normal time and a remarkably generous five minutes of added time (there were few injury stoppages, only a couple of Moldova bookings, and the usual substitutions) without more ado, though without adding to their score.
All in all, this was an encouraging display by a team that has not had much time in which to gel together.
Of those who started, goalkeeper Hradecky has just five senior caps, Arkivuo 10, defender Joona Toivio 5, Hetemaj 8, midfielder Alexander Ring just 2 (though you wouldn't have thought it), and wing-back Jukka Raitala 7.
Two of the three subs - Pukki and Timo Furuholm - are equally green, with just eight senior appearances between them, mostly in friendlies or training matches.
It is a testimony to the briskness with which Mixu Paatelainen has got down to the inevitable business of rebuilding the team that only 25-year-old defender Niklas Moisander (captain for the night) and 24-year-old Roman Eremenko were in the starting XI for the reverse fixture 12 months ago.
Roman's brother Alexei Eremenko Jr. also played in that earlier game and would probably have figured in Helsinki, but he is carrying a minor knee injury and Paatelainen left him out of the squad for the Moldova and Holland matches.
Which brings us neatly to what might happen on Tuesday when The Netherlands show up in the Olympic Stadium.
It is rather hard to draw any conclusions from Friday's game, since at no point did Moldova exert any real pressure on the Finnish back line, while the Dutch most certainly will.
How well they can deal with the likes of the free-scoring Schalke striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (he got two more on Friday in an 11-0 rout of San Marino in Eindhoven), Arsenal's Robin van Persie (four goals on Friday) and Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt (just the one goal for him) will be crucial, as will the duel between Roman Eremenko and Wesley Sneijder of Internazionale for the midfield.
The Dutch are not ranked at #1 on the FIFA lists for nothing: they haven't dropped a single point in a competitive match since going down 1-0 to Spain after extra time in the World Cup Final in South Africa in July 2011, and they have recently leapfrogged over the Spanish to grab the top spot.
Their qualification for the Euro 2012 finals in Poland and Ukraine is almost a certainty, especially now that Hungary did them a favour by beating Sweden 2-1 in Budapest in Friday's third game.
The Dutch have 21 points from 7, Sweden and Hungary each have 15, with the Swedes having played seven and the Hungarians eight games, and Finland have now gone above Moldova, with 9 points to Moldova's 6.
The Dutch can even afford to slip up away to Finland and/or Sweden, as they have the cushion of a six-point lead and a home fixture to come against Moldova, and their first encounter with Sweden ended 4-1 in their favour, so they would need to have a very bad day at the office in Stockholm to lose out to the Swedes on goal difference in the matches between them. They also beat Hungary home and away, so have nothing to fear from that direction.
Although dedicated mathematicians may point out that Finland could get a maximum of 18 points by beating The Netherlands and Sweden at home and Hungary away, even if this unlikely treble were to materialise, there is always the fact that Sweden can - and will - add to their points total at home to San Marino (current goal difference 0-44), that Sweden already have a 5-0 victory over Finland in the bank, and that Hungary, too, still have a better-than-even chance of getting something out of their own trip to Moldova.
Hence it is pretty futile to place anything more than national pride (and a smidgen of neighbourly revenge in the case of the Swedes) on the remaining Euro 2012 qualifiers.
Paatelainen should be thinking of the bigger picture of bedding-in a side who can compete in the World Cup 2014 campaign, and then actually be a serious contender in the European Championships qualifiers leading to France in 2016.
This is also the purpose behind the FA's giving him a long five-year contract in March of this year.
Finally, on a completely separate note, Friday's game against Moldova was marked by unusual scenes among the hardcore supporters on the North Bank terraces.
They made a decent enough contribution to raising the team's spirits, but their minds were clearly elsewhere for long periods of the game, as the Supporters' Club seems to have run into a dispute with the Finnish FA over the use of tifos in the stands.
The FA, perhaps with the support of the fire authorities and the owners of the Olympic Stadium, has banned the big flags as a fire-risk, not least because of the occasional use of flares by the fans.
During the match the FA were repeatedly told to go forth and multiply (or similar) and were tartly reminded that "This is OUR stand".
A large banner proclaimed "Farewell to Tifos - Thanks a lot, FA".
Smokebombs, flares, and fireworks were thrown as well as unprintable insults, and in the second half a phalanx of helmeted and visored police were apparently asked to go in and sort out the troublemakers.
The unfortunate coppers naturally got in in the neck, despite their not actually being a party to the dispute, but several people were taken away in police vans during and after the game. Ten arrests were made.
The fans jubilantly shouted "Fines!" in the direction of the FA management - and it is likely that there will indeed be financial sanctions from UEFA for the unruly behaviour and the fireworks.
The Finnish players, meanwhile, came down firmly on the side of the fans, who it must be said have supported them stoutly through a pretty thin patch in the past year or so.
The team, clearly relieved and delighted with their return to winning ways, walked purposefully to the running track in front of the North Bank, joined hands and saluted the supporters, before stripping off their shirts and tossing them to the crowd.
Although this might have been construed as an inflammatory gesture, it actually quietened things down somewhat and will at least mean the players (if not their FA masters) get the vocal support they need against the Dutch.
Goals: 11. Kasper Hämäläinen (1-0), 43. Hämäläinen (2-0), 52. Mikael Forssell (pen.) (3-0), 71. Igor Armas (o.g.) (4-0), 85. Serghei Alexeev (4-1).
Finland: 1 Lukas Hradecky; 2 Niklas Moisander (capt.), 4 Joona Toivio, 7 Roman Eremenko, 8 Perparim Hetemaj, 9 Mikael Forssell, 13 Kari Arkivuo, 16 Daniel Sjölund ((61. min 10 Teemu Pukki), 19 Alexander Ring (72. min 6 Mika Väyrynen), 21 Kasper Hämäläinen (77. min 20 Timo Furuholm), 22 Jukka Raitala.
Subs not used: 12 Ville Wallén, 2 Petri Pasanen, 14 Tim Sparv, 15 Markus Halsti.
Referee: Anastassios Kakos (Greece)
More on this subject:
New-look Finland take on Moldova with revenge in mind
World Cup 2014 draw in Rio gives Finland a huge task (1.8.2011)
Mika-Matti Paatelainen takes over Finnish helm on five-year contract (1.4.2011)
Finland National Football Team (Wikipedia)