Litmanen returns, but Allianssi take League Cup trophy as outdoor football season begins
Standing ovation for Finland's most famous player
By William Moore
Allianssi - FC Lahti (7-5 after penalties) 2-2 (1-1)
It was billed dramatically as “The Return of the King”, but there was no Hollywood ending for the first appearance in an FC Lahti shirt for Finland’s international footballing star Jari Litmanen. His team were beaten on penalties after their League Cup final match against Allianssi of Vantaa ended in a 2-2 draw, with the Allianssi equaliser coming in injury time.
The king’s return added a good many bottoms on seats, but the crowd of 3,800 at the Pohjola Stadium in Vantaa had to wait an hour before the 33-year-old Litmanen made his entry. The former Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool star got a standing ovation before he had even touched the ball.
Prior to his appearance, the match had already seen two goals, with a 2nd minute glancing header from Jorma Mäkipää putting FC Lahti in front. Allianssi equalised after 37 minutes when the Lahti defence was carved open down the right and Risto Ojanen had the easiest of tasks to stroke the ball home.
Allianssi could in all fairness have gone ahead from the penalty spot shortly afterwards, but when the referee played the advantage rule after a blatant trip on one of their players in the box they managed only to score from an offside position.
While all this was going on, many pairs of eyes were fixed on the substitute’s bench, watching for signs of activity from Jari Litmanen. Though he was clearly seen giving tactical hints to the club coaches, he took no active part in the match until an hour had gone, when he entered the fray to resounding applause, replacing 21-year-old Frenchman Noam Surrier.
Within a minute he had stamped his “elder statesman” authority on the game, not through a shrewd pass or a blistering shot so much as by causing two other players - who had been squaring up to one another - to forget their differences and shake hands. The referee must have suddenly felt terribly irrelevant.
Anyone who had been expecting an instant footballing miracle was disappointed, however, since if anything Litmanen’s arrival upset FC Lahti’s rhythm and for around ten minutes they seemed unable to string more than two passes together. However, in the 78th minute Christian Sund collected the ball on the left-hand edge of the penalty area and turned to hit a sweet drive into the bottom corner.
This looked like settling matters, and Litmanen, too, seemed to relax, hitting a few telling passes and finally pulling off a remarkable piece of juggling by the corner flag, where he held two Allianssi defenders at bay and still managed to get in a decent cross that Sund headed wide.
However, while the crowd were still wildly applauding this feat, Allianssi - who had actually been threatening trouble for some minutes - managed to scramble an equalising goal through Peter Sampo. Almost immediately, the referee blew for full-time.
It had been determined beforehand that there would be no extra-time, but that a drawn game after 90 minutes would be decided immediately on penalties.
Litmanen put his shot away effortlessly, but in these circumstances somebody has to fail, and the short straw fell to young Ville Taulo, who scuffed his shot wide. Ironically, it had been this same player who scored the decisive penalty when FC Lahti won their semi-final. John Ahlberg netted with his penalty kick and Allianssi were home by 7-5, collecting a cheque for EUR 20,000 and the League Cup trophy.
It remains to be seen what impact Jari Litmanen has on the Finnish game, but this will have been a useful enough pipe-opener for him. Almost the biggest cheer of the day was reserved for a rare sight: Litmanen went in hard to perform a sliding tackle in midfield and emerged unscathed - and with the ball.
If and when his team-mates learn to run into the positions that this exquisite playmaker sees by instinct, then FC Lahti will have themselves a highly valuable addition. And as long as he stays fit, Litmanen’s presence in the Finnish Veikkaus League is certain to lift the attendance figures.
The League itself gets under way later this week and runs until October. Finland has a summer football season, for fairly obvious climatic reasons: the pitch on Sunday looked in need of a few weeks’ sunshine and a session with a heavy roller.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Litmanen parts company with Ajax Amsterdam ahead of schedule; midfielder signs with FC Lahti (13.4.2004)