Finland face further injury woes ahead of Belgium game
Full house expected for must-win match
After defeat to Serbia on Saturday, Finland face Belgium in a EURO 2008 qualifier in the Olympic Stadium tonight, and in front of a full house the players will be hoping to make amends for their weak showing last time out.
Coach Roy Hodgson has if anything more injury and suspension worries than before. Teemu Tainio is out for several weeks with a knee injury, Jari Litmanen picked up yet another knock during his 20 minutes on the field on Saturday, Toni Kuivasto missed the final training session with a back problem but is expected to be fit, and Mika Nurmela took a nasty gash from an elbow to his forehead in training, requiring stitches. Nurmela is now also a doubtful starter.
With Sami Hyypiä out through a one-match suspension, and with Litmanen's involvement again wreathed in question-marks, it may be that central defender Hannu Tihinen puts on the captain's armband. Another alternative might be goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen.
If Litmanen is unavailable, Hodgson will be looking to the brothers Eremenko to turn words into deeds and promise into results. Roman Eremenko, 20, is uncapped, but took part in final training before the Azerbaijan game in March, and has been part of the squad this time. It could be the moment for the midfielder, who plays for Siena in Italy's Serie A, to step up to the plate now.
His elder brother Alexei, 24, is likely to start in the Litmanen role behind the strikers, and will be expected to deliver a more solid link between midfield and attack than the Finns could muster against Serbia. If he should add to his tally of 10 international goals in 27 starts so far, so much the better.
To some extent Roy Hodgson has has continued down the path trodden by his predecessor Antti Muurinen, namely one of leaning heavily on the services and wellbeing of captain Litmanen, but now may just be the time for a clean break and for some experimentation. Many will at least feel that nothing could go further wrong than it did in the first half against Serbia.
Belgium should be a slightly easier nut to crack: the team has slid down the FIFA rankings in recent years, from 16th in 2000 to a lowly 62nd now, 17 places below Finland. With only seven points so far to show for their seven games in Group A, Belgium have even less chance of qualifying for the finals than Finland. All the same, they will not be any pushover, and in the past the Finns have shown a rather worrying inability to win "must-win" games.
The result should not have anything to do with lack of support, as the Olympic Stadium is likely to be full.
The Finnish FA will be opening up a few extra blocks in the Stadium tonight in B14, close to the Belgian travelling fans, which should lift capacity to 36,600. By Tuesday morning, more than 33,000 tickets had been sold, and the fine weather is likely to tempt in a few more today.
Despite the fact that the 2-0 loss to Serbia put a serious and possibly fatal dent in Finland's hopes of qualifying for the finals in Austria and Switzerland, the Finnish FA has expressed its full support for coach Roy Hodgson. The FA President Pekka Hämäläinen said on Tuesday that he hoped it would be possible to secure an extension to his contract.
As it stands, Hodgson has a contract until the end of the EURO 2008 campaign, including the finals if Finland happen to make it. Hämäläinen praised Hodgson's skills both as a coach and as one who could teach other coaches, and he scotched rumours that his stance towards the team coach's future had become ambivalent.
Finland vs. Belgium, Olympic Stadium, kick-off 20:15. Fans are advised to arrive early as there will be security checks at the gate. Once again, public transport makes more sense than looking for a non-existent parking place in the vicinity of the Stadium.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finland 0 Serbia 2: Disappointing in the extreme (2.6.2007)
Finland National Team (Wikipedia)