Opening game under Baxter leads to 2-1 defeat
Litmanen scores 29th goal in a Finnish shirt
In the first full international under the management of new head coach Stuart Baxter, Finland went down 2-1 to Greece in a friendly played on Wednesday night in Nicosia, Cyprus.
The term "full international" is probably something of a misnomer, as Finland were missing a good many of their regular squad, and the match was as much as anything a continuation of the team's winter training camp in Cyprus.
Nevertheless, putting players up against a strong Greek line-up gave the new coach a chance to see some of his men in action, and despite the defeat he said he had witnessed a good deal to be pleased about.
In the first half, the Finnish forwards did play quite brightly, with captain Jari Litmanen showing flashes of his old form and some attractive linkage between Alexei Eremenko Jr., Mikael Forssell, and Jonatan Johansson.
Johansson was guilty of letting a golden chance go begging after only six minutes, when Litmanen found him clear on goal with a delightful through ball.
For at least half an hour the Finns looked the more constructive side, but could not turn their endeavour into goals. They nearly paid a heavy price towards the end of the half, when the Greeks swarmed forward in numbers and several times went close, including a shot by Sotiris Kyrgiakos from a narrow angle that hit the bar after Peter Enckelman had flapped at a cross.
The Finnish defence looked solid for the most part, but were not helped by some very stray passing in midfield that put them under pressure as the Greeks - who qualified comfortably for Euro 2008 and are indeed the reigning European Champions after their shock win in Portugal four years ago - gradually upped the tempo.
The Greek coach Otto Rehhagel made several changes after the restart, but the Finns kept the same line-up, and went ahead rather against the run of play in the 67th minute after good work by Eremenko found Litmanen in space, and the captain slotted home his 29th international goal in what was his 111th appearance.
The Greeks hit back immediately, replying after less than a minute with a headed goal by Angelos Haristeas following a free-kick just outside the area.
If anything, this goal showcased the problems that the Finns had all night: at set-pieces at either end of the field they were guilty of either squandering chances or losing men who should have been marked.
On several occasions they were allowed to escape the shoddy covering, but ultimately the lesson had to be learned.
Five minutes later, Constantinos Katsouranis sealed the Greek comeback with a shot from distance that bounced awkwardly and beat Enckelman low into the far corner.
All in all, it was a useful workout for several players who for one reason or another have been short of match practice of late, and at the back in particular the match provided Baxter with a chance to blood a few new players.
Markus Halsti showed a maturity beyond his years in the middle of the defence on his first-team début, and Markus Heikkinen also worked hard, often linking up with the strikers to good effect.
As Baxter commented after the game, there was much to like about the way the Finns went forward, especially in the opening exchanges, but when the World Cup qualifiers come around there has to be some way of combining the tight defence - which gave away only a miserly seven goals in the Euro 2008 campaign - with creativity up front.
Previously in HS International Edition:
First test for Finnish team under new coach (6.2.2008)