Hodgson's Finns make some sober progress

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How much beer does it take before Roy Hodgson's Finland become watchable?

After a turgid performance against Serbia on Saturday the question has been in a lot of Finnish minds this week. A small country with one world class player, Jari Litmanen, the tussle between free-flowing, confident football and a more cautious, dour approach is at the heart of the deliberations over the Finnish national team. Roy Hodgson is resolutely on the dour side, especially when playing against top-seeded teams.

The build up to the Serbia game was dominated by Litmanen. He's the darling of the Finnish media, and the country in general come to that, and his participation or otherwise is of paramount importance. The column inches devoted to Jari and his injuries compare only to those covering team-mate Alexei Eremenko Jr's many and varied indiscretions.

This is a lot of hot air, really. When Javier Clemente was asked after if he was surprised by Finland playing two strikers, he almost had to stifle a yawn. 'I wasn't surprised at all,' said the Basque. 'If Litmanen plays it's him plus a striker, if not they play two up front.'

Clemente would be well advised not to seek employment in the Finnish press if he can't make more of selection decisions than that.

A good win on Wednesday against Belgium showed that Finland don't need Litmanen to put on a good show. Goals from Jonatan Johansson and the aforementioned Alexei Eremenko Jr closed the gap on Serbia and Portugal, although Finland have played a game more.

Against Serbia Finland had looked painfully limited, with Vidic showing his class and the Serb midfield dominating against Markus Heikkinen and Jari Ilola, two defensive midfielders.

When Finland needed a goal in the second half, Hodgson threw Sami Hyypia up front and his team resorted to long balls to the front men. This continued even when Litmanen came on with 20 minutes to go, and caused a fair bit of grumbling in the Finnish media, with the man from Hufvudstadbladet arguing that Hodgson's tactics had been '100% wrong'.

There was a strong political dimension to Saturday's game, with Serbian President Boris Tadic watching the game with EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn, a Finn. Rehn is relatively well regarded in Serbia, unlike the former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. He is handling negotiations widely expected to result in independence for the Serbian province of Kosovo.

This would not be a popular move in Serbia. A huge banner reading 'Kosovo is Serbia' greeted the teams as they ran out, a message sure to have provided Crystal Palace striker Shefki Kuqi with some extra motivation as he lined up for Finland. Kuqi was born in Kosovo and even missed a Finland game last summer for his wedding in Vucitrn, the village of his birth. 'Getting married in Kosovo is not a small thing,' said Finland coach Roy Hodgson. 'Shefki will probably be dancing for a week.'

In the end President Tadic's team was victorious and went straight to the dressing rooms to congratulate the Serbian players. Other results went as expected and Finland looked set to exit the competition before it had started once again. Portugal seemed to be involved in a long-range shooting contest in Belgium, eventually running out 2-1 winners through stunning strikes from Nani and Helder Postiga.

Armenia made things a bit more exciting on Wednesday, though. Leo Beenhakker's Poland team made heavy weather of beating Azerbaijan on Saturday, and headed to Yerevan for the Armenia game still top of the group with their confidence shaken. Ian Porterfield had prepared his team well, and Armenia triumphed through a Hamlet Mkhitaryan goal on 66 minutes. 'It's a great day for Armenian football,' said the former Sheffield United manager who returned to his job in March after fighting cancer.

Armenia have taken points from Finland and beaten Poland, with Portugal and Serbia still to visit Yerevan's Olympic Stadium and the Tofik Bakhramov stadium in Baku, the group could be decided by who does best in the Caucasus. Azerbaijan have beaten Finland in Baku and will hope to take points from the big boys again. Portugal visit Baku on October 13.

Perhaps the most interesting contests in the group will have no bearing on the top two positions. A double-header in September takes Armenia to Baku with the return game being played 7 days later. Both games are likely to be fierce encounters, with the countries still officially at war with each other after the 1988-94 conflict over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

For all the permutations, this group is Serbia and Portugal's to lose. Javier Clemente and Felipe Scolari are in the driving seat but strange things have happened so far and they could again.

Poland, Serbia, Finland and Portugal are all managed by foreigners and to a greater or lesser extent satisfied with the progress made so far. The manager's passport is not as important as his knowledge and ability to do his job. Maybe the English FA could learn something from this, especially given that the Group A nation least satisfied with their coach is Finland, who are led by an Englishman.

Oh, and if you were wondering, the answer to the opening beer question is 3 pints. After the Danish fan who attacked Markus Frandel in Copenhagen offered his 15-20 pre-match pints as an explanation, the Finnish tabloids set out to find out what was considered a 'safe' level of intoxication among respectable, football-loving Finns.

A slack-jawed nationalist MP and Millwall fan called Timo Soini admitted to three beers before a game. Arto Nyberg, who hosts a chat show on the state broadcaster, also said three beers gets him in the mood for Roy's boys. Mikael Forssell's sister Christina, a footballer herself, claimed not to drink anything.