Russia fired Germany a stark warning last night that first place in the group is no formality, as they regained their merciless attacking essence in a 3-0 decimation of Finland in Helsinki.
For Russia, Guus Hiddink exercised his ruthless managerial muscle to remove the defective Roman Pavlyuchenko from the starting eleven. The Dutch tactician – taking the reigns for the first time since his interim spell at Chelsea – recalled Dinamo Moscow striker Aleksandr Kherzakov to fill the void left by the £14m Spurs man.
The Russian coach will have vehemently expressed the importance of regaining a cutting edge in front of goal with some vital fixtures coming up, as they bid to secure a berth at South Africa 2010.
Team: Igor Akinfeev, Denis Kolodin, Sergei Ignashevic, Vasili Berezutsky, Igor Denisov, Igor Semshov, Andrei Arshavin (C), Vladimir Bystrov, Aleksandr Kherzakov, Konstantin Zyrianov, Yuri Zhirkov
Finland have grown in confidence throughout this qualification campaign and results such as a 3-3 draw with Germany will have rightly bolstered the belief that this team can mix it with the big boys of Europe. But Stuart Baxter would have reiterated to his men – particularly his defence – that they could not suffer the indignant experience of conceding two own goals within one ninety minute period against the Russians for the second time in succession.
Sami Hyypia captained a side that featured 38-year old former Liverpool team mate Jari Litmanen – a Finnish footballing Saint.
Team: Jussi Jaaskelainen, Petri Pasanen, Toni Kallio, Sami Hyypia (C), Hannu Tihinen, Alexei Jun. Eremenko, Roman Eremenko, Mikael Forssell, Jari Litmanen, Markus Heikkenen, Jonathan Johansson
Russia began the contest a shadow of the worn and frail looking side that limped to victory in Vaduz over two months ago – their trademark intricate passing moves almost immediately paid off when a number rapid one touch passes became too much for the Finnish defence and led to a foul out in the right flank. Andrei Arshavin whipped in the resulting free kick, only for the returning Kherzakov to direct his header over Jaaskelainen’s crossbar.
Despite the frenetic pace set by the Russan’s, the Finn’s wern’t about to let the prospect of qualifying for their first major tournament slip away from them. A searching ball from Eremenko found Jonathan Johansson in the right channel, who supplied a superb first time cross only for Mikel Forssell to miscue his finish.
The home side were nearly made to pay for Forssell’s profligacy in front of goal as the eastern European’s demonstrated the potency of their counter attacking game – a game which had seemingly been rediscovered only 25 minutes into the first half in Helsinki.
Arshavin evaded tackles from two Finnish defenders before playing Zyrianov into space on the left. However, his low ball into the box was sinfully sent skyward by squandering Vladimir Bystrov.
A minute later though, and the Finn’s were trailing.
Jaaskelainen had scarcely recovered from the previous Russian attack when Ignashevich threaded a ball from inside his own half through Arshavin just on the edge of the area. The Arsenal man then provided a sumptuous flick which Kherzakov latched on to as he proceded to round the flagging Bolton goalkeeper and slot home to put the away side very much in control of the tie.
This was very much a goal which demonstrated everything that this Russian side can be about on their day: precision, individual brilliance, and lethal finishing.
The lead was almost doubled within minutes when the same two men combined to awe-inspiring effect once again; Arshavin’s through ball to Kherzakov was rocketed over the bar almost as swiftly as it had been laced in.
The Finn’s had two good chances to level the scores up before half time with Toni Kallio heading over from a corner, and Johansson blazing straight at Igor Akinfeev from close range after some confident build up play from the home team.
Finland’s exertions proved to be in vein when Aleksandr Kherzakov doubled the mountain which they had to climb with typical strikers finish.
Bystrov stole the ball following Kallio’s hesitation to clear on the edge of his own area, and deceived the rest of the dejected defence before firing at Jaaskelainen who could only palm the ball into the path of Kherzakov who increased his goalscoring tally for the day to two.
With a buoyant blue army lining the Olympiastadion, Finland pressed on with a plucky attempt to gain a foothold in the game on which they could build and almost reaped the rewards from this approach when Forssell found space but again wastefully bombed into altitude.
Kherzakov was withdrawn midway through the second half after an immaculate comeback from the scrapheap of international football, with Roman Pavlyuchenko given twenty five minutes to repair his broken reputation on the world stage.
But it was Konstantin Zyrianov who provided the final nail in the Finland coffin, roaming into the left hand side of the 18-yard box before wrongfooting the usually unflappable Hyypia and belting a deflected shot goalwards to end the misery of Stuart Baxter’s defeated side.
A monumental victory for Russia was completed in the most professional and aesthetically pleasing of fashions. Effectively affording the cessation of Finland’s challenge for a place in South Africa, Guus Hiddink can now look forward to turning up the heat on group leaders Germany who they are yet to play at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow.
Despite the likelihood of accomplishing an adequate points tally being wafer thin, the Finn’s will leave this qualification process with their heads held high after some creditable displays – notably so against Germany in their own backyard. Stuart Baxter will not let his players heads drop, but will surely have one eye on Euro 2012 in Poland & Ukraine as he tweaks his industrious side with the aim of reaching their maiden major finals.
Man of the Match
With his menacing presence being felt by almost the whole of the Finnish side, Andrei Arshavin undoubtedly scoops this accolade after being involved in the build up to two of the triumphant Kherzakov’s strikes. At times his pace and movement is enough to win games for his country, and he showed his class once again with this magnificent display.