Finland 1 Azerbaijan 0

William’s report is here

The game kicked off with a bit of an embarrassing anthem disruption from the North Curve. They kept singing while the Helsinki Police band were giving a decent rendition of Azərbaycan Respublikasının Dövlət Himni, the Azeri national anthem. They’re done great stuff recently, and there was a gushing article in yesterday’s Ilta-Sanomat, educational in tone about what a fan section should be about.

It’d be rubbish if that goodwill was wasted by people taking the worst parts of other countries’ football cultures. I counted 44 police around the Pohjoiskaarre fans at the start of the game, but they were mostly there to watch the game rather than in anticipation of any serious trouble.

Teemu Tainio started the match, surprisingly for me, and Finland lined up like this:

Jääskeläinen

Pasanen, Tihinen, Hyypiä, Kallio

Eremenko, Tainio

Sjölund, Väyrynen, Roiha

Forsell

The Azeri formation was something like this:

Aghayev,

Malikov, Sasha XXX (as he was announced on the team sheet), Shukurov, Chertoganov, Sadigov, Abasov, Mammadov, Zeynalov

Gomes

Subasic

Berti Vogts likes to keep things tight, and his entire objective was a 0-0 draw in Helsinki. His players were disciplined and organised, as well as niggly and cynical. They grappled with Forsell and screamed blue murder at each other whenever a Finland cross came in, as that kind of dangerous excitement should be strictly rationed in the Vogts theory of football.

Quite a few crosses did come in during the first half hour or so, as Finland dominated proceedings. Eremenko was tricky and full of ideas, always able to beat his man before spotting and executing a telling pass, Väyrynen was bright and Roiha extremely fast. The best chance of this period came when Roiha chipped the ball into the box for Väyrynen, who could only blast straight at the keeper. Roiha fizzed a shot just wide, but more often than not the ball would reach Forsell who was being wretsled to the ground by Sadigov and whoever else was nearby.

After that things settled into a Hodgsonesque quagmire of condensed play, with Finland’s full-backs not breaking forward as much and Azerbaijan content to waste time. For a while it seemed like they would not be able to continue play after a free kick for either team without seeking treatment, and the crowd started booing their gamesmanship.

It felt a bit grim at half time. Finland have lost to Azerbaijan in Baku, and last time in Helsinki it came down to Sheki Kuqi’s nose to save the day in the last minute. After Väyrynen’s miss and Sjölund’s failure to get a penalty when blatantly hauled down with only the keeper to beat, the nagging fear was that Finland would just not find a way past the most cynical opponents seen in Helsinki for a long time. The Azeris were throwing themselves in the way of anything and everything in and around the box, aware that the ground was wet and slippery and Aghayev would need protection. They looked comfortable, especially as they clearly had no desire to score a goal themselves.

Thankfully the referee gave Finland a penalty for shirt tugging in the box on 60 minutes. It looked inexplicable from where I was sitting, and the kind of thing that always happens but virtually never gets given, but nobody was that bothered (except the small party of Azeri journalists in the press box). After that Finland hung on, and when things started getting a bit frayed Baxter sent on Litmanen. He didn’t do anything amazing, but he really lifted the crowd and didn’t lose the ball much, so I guess you could say he steadied the ship. Baxter did, anyway.

The funniest press conference was Berti Vogts’s. He came in, gave his opinions on the game, said he only had one player playing abroad whereas the Finns had only one player playing in Finland (not quite true, as both Roiha and Pohja played a role), and that he congratulated Stuart Baxter. Then a quick ‘any questions? no? okay, bye’ before the Azeri journalists hauled him back in to answer for his defensive strategy. Vogts was very dismissive, insulting even, saying ‘you only watch football in Azerbaijan, this is completely different’, without addressing the question. He then went on to say that Finland might finish third, but won’t do better than that.

Baxter said there were more positives than negatives, and that he was very pleased to have gotten this game out of the way. The Russia game will allow Finland to be the ‘hunter’ rather than the ‘hunted’, and that is an easier role, according to Baxter. There will be less pressure on them, and Jonas Von Wendt suggests in today’s HBL that Heikkinen will come in for Roiha to bolster the midfield. In short, it was mission accomplished and not much more. But Finland don’t have to play Azerbaijan again for nearly a year, and that’s something everyone can be happy about.

I went to Atlantis-JJK yesterday as well, had a great time, and will write it up later on.

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Finland v Azerbaijan preview

I did an interview with Stuart Baxter this week, and it was gratifying to hear him talk so much about stadia and facilities. This guy really understands what he has to do, and is in it for the long term. It was rather amusing that we spoke for 40 minutes and didn’t mention any of his current players, but luckily some more switched on journalists at the press conference afterwards asked about Alexei Eremenko Jr.

Teemu Tainio is in Finland, and may or may not play. There’s no pressing need for him to play, as Heikkinen is fit, but Ilta-sanomat has picked up on Roy Keane’s comments at safc.com:

The Black Cats boss said: “Teemu has reported with the international team. I had a chat with their administrator who said they just wanted to have a look at him, but I doubt he would be right for the games.

“Teemu and Nyron are coming along nicely, the Fulham game might be an option for them.”

IS missed out the bit about chatting with the administrator, but everything I’ve heard suggests the Finnish FA and keane are on the same page on this one. Baxter specifically mentioned ‘having a look at Tainio’ in his press conference on Tuesday, and I would be surprised if he played.

Baxter has been keen to talk about the atmosphere in the camp and ensure everyone is upbeat and enthusiastic, as his ‘battle between the wars’ soundbite got another airing on Tuesday. Having Tainio at the hotel, even if he isn’t going to play, will no doubt help give a little boost to the other midfielders who know they need to maintain their form to keep their places.

Teemu Tainio signs for Sunderland

This news has been greeted with fanfare, street parties and celebratory gunfire in parts of the Finnish football community. Too many Finnish players move abroad and rot in the reserves, and Tainio has been desperate to play some games for a long time now. Roy Keane was very happy, according to the Guardian.

“The fact he has played more than 40 international games shows he has a lot to offer,” Keane said. Teemu has shown versatility, playing in different midfield positions for both Tottenham and his previous club Auxerre.”

That is true, but he is effectively a midfield holding player not dissimilar to Keane himself. If he gets a run of games in that position he will do very well for Sunderland, and his potentially increased match fitness will be excellent for Finland too. With Mika Väyrynen also changing clubs this summer, Finland’s midfield could be as strong as it’s been in a long time for the autumn internationals against Germany and Russia.

Tainio: A very tactical player

Teemu Tainio got some rare praise from Patrick Barclay in the Telegraph today. He’s been out of the side and struggling for form when playing with the national team (he’s been fresh, so full of running, but lacking a bit of sharpness), so it’s good to see him starting to play a key role for Spurs in their cup games this week. He seems to have tempted fate though, and Tottenham got panned at Old Trafford today.

Tainio is a ‘front sweeper’

Not for the first time, we are talking – yes, you’ve guessed it – holding midfielders. For me, there was no brighter star of last week’s show than Teemu Tainio. Not even King or the indefatigably brilliant Robbie Keane, whose instant short pass to set up Lennon’s goal came from the very soul of football (you could envisage Ron Greenwood, say, beaming at its deft selflessness). Or Jermaine Jenas, who not only scored but helped Tainio to seal the fringes of Spurs’ penalty area. The Finn, acting as what used to be called a “front sweeper”, was fundamental in the frustration of an Arsenal side enhanced (though they did not wish it thus) by the appearance of Cesc Fabregas as an early substitute for the injured Denilson. This was tactically clever and you wonder what Ramos will have in store for Sir Alex Ferguson today as he seeks to preserve a personal record of no defeats in cup ties for the best part of two years.

Poyet paid tribute to Tainio when the Uruguayan, a very different type in that almost all his efforts were concerned with attack when he bestrode the midfields of Chelsea and Tottenham, spoke to the press on Friday. “He’s very clever,” said Poyet. “He understands what the manager wants and the needs of the team. Positionally he is different class. He knows when to play it simple – and when to make a foul sometimes! All these ingredients make for a very tactical player. He is very important for us.”

Now I know we are not supposed to condone tactical fouling – and, for what it is worth, I thought almost all of Tainio’s interventions against Arsenal were clean anyway – but it can be a vital part of the holding role in the modern game and there could be no complaints from Wenger because, in this respect, he is no purist, as scrutiny of the habits of, say, Gilberto Silva, or before him Patrick Vieira would confirm. Even at Arsenal, no one mistakes football for a beauty contest and you can be sure that their great rivals’ more glamorous players, led by Dimitar Berbatov, will not want to go to Wembley without Tainio.

Pekka Hämelainen has announced that SPL’s preferred candidate to be national team manager is Stuart Baxter. Another Svecophile (is that a word?) Englishman, Baxter has managed Basel and South Africa, as well as England Under 19s and a variety of Scandinavian clubs. He has a good reputation in Sweden and has managed to emerge unscathed from Helsingborg’s travails, which were caused by more senior people than coaches.

It’ll be interesting to see how much confidence the prevaricating old fellas have in this appointment (if indeed it is confirmed, although I doubt they’d announce it like this unless they were confident). Litmanen and Hyypiä are still to decide what to do, with Kaven and Nurmela already having retired from the national team. The latter two played bit parts at best, but Litti and Hyypiä could make a big difference – even if it’s only to improve morale.

Teemu Tainio, pride of Lapland?

I am reliably informed, by people who should know, that ‘proper’ Lapland doesn’t start until you get north of the Ivalojoki river. I’ve had a look on the map, and asked at the train station, but no-one can sell me a ticket there. I’ll probably have to settle for tourist Lapland down in Kitilä or Rovaniemi or Kolari, if I ever decide to visit the quintessential Finnish landscapes (copyright of the Finnish tourist board). This melting snow is really depressing the hell out of me right now, so I may be tempted sooner rather than later.

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