Hughes stays calm in play-off quest

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The Independent Football

When they travelled to Helsinki for their first match of this European Championship qualifying campaign a year ago, Wales would have taken a place in the play-offs. With a victory or even a point tonight against the same Finnish opposition, they can achieve it.

It says plenty for the vast strides made by this team under Mark Hughes' management that a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Italians in Milan should have come as such a profound shock. This, not too long ago, was a team that could go to Moldova or Belarus and lose.

Even with his squad battered by injury and suspensions before this evening's encounter at the Millennium Stadium, the Wales manager remained calm: "We are so close to achieving something," Hughes said. "It is not a case of losing our nerve. The way we play has given us a lot of success and it's not a road I'm getting away from just because we have lost two games away from home."

Without the suspended Craig Bellamy, Robbie Savage and Mark Delaney and with the centre-half Danny Gabbidon still unfit, Hughes will have to perform plenty of tactical surgery. Broadly, he has to choose whether to keep Simon Davies in a role he does not enjoy at right-back or return him to his usual position for Tottenham. If he does return to midfield, there is the question of whether he trusts his only remaining right-back, Cardiff's Rhys Weston. The evidence suggests Hughes does not and may prefer another midfielder, John Oster. The recovery of the centre-half Andy Melville will also have cheered Hughes.

Should Wales draw, they will achieve a play-off place if Italy beat Serbia and Montenegro or keep them to a point in Belgrade. There are enough statistical permutations to keep Peter Snow up all night but after a 2-1 win in Azerbaijan the Finns have a slim chance of pipping Wales to a play-off place.

It would, however, require three results to go their way - a victory in Cardiff by two clear goals, Serbia losing to Italy and then winning at the Millennium Stadium in a match which would be meaningless to them but of consuming importance to Wales.

Footballers are eternal optimists but the Finland goalkeeper, Antti Niemi, returning to the stadium where he was carried off in this year's FA Cup final, said: "It would take something special and we have to be realistic. It's not a big chance."

The Finns are without their key playmaker, Jari Litmanen, and endured a draining journey which saw them arrive in Helsinki from Baku at 6am on Sunday, rest briefly, take another flight to London and then travel to Cardiff by coach. For Wales, who will again play in front of a sell-out crowd, much rests upon Ryan Giggs and John Hartson as the two obviously international-class performers that Hughes can field.

"When I wasn't a regular in the side and there was a suspension or injury, I used to welcome the chance," Hartson said when asked about the players Hughes will bring in from the Nationwide League. "It's a great occasion. I said Italy was the biggest game I'd been involved with but now Finland is bigger. We want to get it wrapped up and take second place."

Hartson stated that the victory in Finland gave a Welsh team that had been taunted as the least successful in their history the confidence to strike out in Group Nine. "It showed we could go to a nation with good players and win. It gave everybody in the country a lift." Now they must aim to give their public a bigger one.

WALES: (4-4-1-1; probable): Jones (Southampton); Oster (Sunderland), Page (Sheffield United), Melville (Fulham), Speed (Newcastle); Davies (Tottenham), Koumas (West Bromwich), Pembridge (Fulham), Giggs (Manchester United); Earnshaw (Cardiff); Hartson (Celtic).

FINLAND: (4-2-3-1; probable): Niemi (Southampton); Reini (Alkmaar), Tihinen (Anderlecht), Hyypia (Liverpool), Tainio (Auxerre); Vayrynen (Heerenveen), Kopteff (Viking Stavanger); Kolkka (Mönchengladbach), Nurmela (Kaiserslautern); Forssell (Chelsea).

Referee: D Arturo (Spain).