Finland 8 San Marino 0: Goals galore and a Litmanen cameo after an unconvincing start
Forssell hat-trick forms backbone of Finland's biggest-ever competitive victory - against the world's worst team
By William Moore
Finland eventually trounced little San Marino 8-0 on Wednesday night in a freezing cold Olympic Stadium in front of just over 8,000 spectators.
This gave them three points, their first points in the current Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, but did nothing to improve their position in the Group E table: they remain bogged down in 5th place, behind The Netherlands, Hungary, Sweden, and Moldova.
What the result did do, nevertheless, was to restore a certain amount of professional pride and self-confidence, battered by three straight defeats including a hapless 2-0 away loss to Moldova, with the final indignity being that the national squad slipped to 87th in the latest FIFA rankings, published on Wednesday.
In 2007 they were as high as 33rd, but now they are rubbing shoulders with Bahrain, Guyana, Azerbaijan, Grenada, and the People's Republic of China.
For the first half an hour, the Finnish team, under the temporary stewardship of Olli Huttunen, seemed to merit this lowly placing and did not look like a side that would score four, let alone eight goals against a team ranked at the very very bottom of the FIFA pile.
Despite bossing the midfield and most other areas of the park against the part-timers, the Finns always found a visiting defender too many when they got within range, and whilst the San Marino goalkeeper Aldo Simoncini made a couple of smart saves, it was more a matter of poor final passes and wasted crosses that left things on level terms for nearly 40 minutes.
"Powerless effort", not "effortless power".
Just as the fans were getting a little restless at the lack of anything to show for all the possession, Mika Väyrynen relieved the tension when he got on the end of a cross from Kasper Hämäläinen on the right and rifled home from close range.
Even so, the half-time discussions were more about the opportunities that had been missed up front by Hämäläinen, Daniel Sjölund, Mikael Forssell, and Alexei Eremenko Jr. than about any impending renaissance in the team's fortunes.
1-0 was pretty thin fare against a team that most Finnish First Division sides would eat for breakfast.
Fortunately the second half, with the Finns playing towards the hardcore fans on the North Bank, was a very different affair.
At the interval Huttunen took off Sjölund for veteran Jari Litmanen, who came on to a hero's welcome and immediately took up the conductor's baton, bringing shape and timing to what had previously been a busy but rather incoherent performance.
Within four minutes of the restart Roman Eremenko offered Hämäläinen a perfect opportunity to break his scoring duck with the national team, and he powered a header home.
Just two minutes more and Forssell turned deftly on the edge of the box and drove the ball into the left-hand corner for his first and Finland's third.
By now the visitors were beginning to flag from all the running and covering they had had to do in the first half, and the Finns' extra yard of pace started to count in earnest.
Forssell's second goal was a well-worked affair involving Roman Eremenko again and Niklas Moisander, and the striker did the rest from close range.
Veli Lampi fed in Hämäläinen for a second goal, and Jari Litmanen converted from the penalty spot for 6-0 and his 32nd international goal, on his 137th appearance.
Roni Porokara scored number seven within three minutes of his introduction to replace Hämäläinen, and with Litmanen again instrumental in the build-up to the goal.
Forssell then rounded off the evening's entertainment by bagging his hat-trick and his fifth goal in the Euro 2012 campaign so far.
This last one was another swivel on the edge of the box accompanied by a confident strike - the sort of thing he could never have pulled off in the first half when Finland really needed a goal to get things going.
By knocking in eight, the Finns set a new goalscoring record for competitive matches, although they have once beaten southern neighbours Estonia 10-2 in a friendly - but that was 88 years ago.
Everyone went home happy, or at least happier than of late, even though there was a nagging feeling that it should not have taken quite so long to break down San Marino, whose sole footballing victory to date is a 1-0 friendly win over Liechtenstein in 2004.
The crowd did their best to keep warm in temperatures around zero, and it is good that the goals started arriving in the second half to distract people's attention from the thin flakes of snow that started to fall as a harbinger of the big dump Helsinki received on Thursday morning.
By this time, the North Bank supporters had switched from chants of "Who's going to win? FINLAND!" to the general adoration of King Jari Litmanen, and the cry was now an insistent "Who's going to carry on playing? JARI!"
There was also a burst of post-coaching-change invective at the former head coach Stuart Baxter in the form of "Baxter Out - There's the result!", but it was mostly all about Litti.
The great man may or may not have been making his farewell appearance - he was typically non-committal after the match, even though he did make a special point of going to applaud the fans for their support, which gave some pundits the idea that this was it.
In any event, the 39-year-old looked quite sharp and he patently helped to restore the other players' belief in themselves.
It wasn't a bad way to sign off, if Litmanen decides he's had enough, but surely the home game next year against The Netherlands - where he plied his trade to greatest effect with Ajax in the mid-1990s - would have a heap more resonance and poignancy to it, with a big crowd present and the likelihood that he would be cheered almost as much by the visiting Dutch supporters.
The possible heir apparent Alexei Eremenko Jr. looked good enough just behind the front row in the first half, although he was back to his old ways of holding on to the ball too long.
However, he rather faded out of things after the interval and was subbed for the ever-popular Shefki Kuqi ten minutes from time.
Kuqi ran around a lot but to no great effect, or Finland might have got into double figures.
Many would I suspect have been equally happy to see one of the younger players given a chance to make an impression instead.
All in all, it was a fairly satisfactory end to a very unsatisfactory autumn that saw three straight defeats and the replacement of Stuart Baxter after he lost the confidence of the fans, the press, and apparently even some of the playing squad.
Now the Finnish FA - nursing some financial cuts and bruises from the effects of the poor performances on attendance figures - have some breathing space to think about who will fill the coaching position on a more permanent basis.
Olli Huttunen, seen originally as a one-match nightwatchman, has now thrown his hat into the ring.
He has been on the coaching staff since 2002 and has worked under both Baxter and his predecessor Roy Hodgson, and after Wednesday's game he asked why he should be passed over when he has learned his trade in this way.
If Huttunen's tenure is limited to one match, at least there is little likelihood of anyone ever improving on his competitive record as a national coach: played one, won one; goals for eight, goals against nil.
Finland next play San Marino again in the reverse fixture in June 2011, before a trip to Sweden that will be appreciably tougher going.
Moldova and The Netherlands come to Helsinki in quick succession in September, and the qualification programme wraps up in October with Sweden at home and Hungary away.
For either of these last two fixtures to have any meaning whatsoever, the Finns - oldtimers like Sami Hyypiä or Litmanen and youngsters such as 23-year-old Roman Eremenko alike - will need to play out of their skins in 2011, irrespective of who happens to be in charge.
Finland 8 San Marino 0 (1-0)
Finland: Otto Fredrikson; Veli Lampi, Petri Pasanen (captain), Markus Heikkinen, Niklas Moisander; Roman Eremenko (booked, 89.), Kasper Hämäläinen (Roni Rorokara, 70.) Mika Väyrynen, Aleksei Eremenko Jr. (Shefki Kuqi, 80.) Daniel Sjölund (Jari Litmanen, 46.); Mikael Forssell.
Coach: Olli Huttunen
Goals: 39. Mika Väyrynen 1–0, 48. Kasper Hämäläinen 2–0, 51. Mikael Forssell 3–0, 59. Forssell 4–0, 67. Hämäläinen 5–0, 71. Jari Litmanen (pen.) 6–0, 73. Roni Porokara 7–0, 78. Forssell 8–0.
Referee: Radek Matejek (CZE)
Attendance: 8,192 (Olympic Stadium capacity 36,000)
Weather: Cold but clear (c. 0°C); a few thin flakes of snow in the second half.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Litmanen keeps cards close to his chest on retirement plans (17.11.2010)
Wrap up warm if you are going to see Finland vs. San Marino (16.11.2010)
Baxter steps aside; Olli Huttunen to serve as head coach for San Marino game next week (10.11.2010)
Finland National Football Team (Wikipedia)
Jari Litmanen (Wikipedia)