Wales ride luck to clinch at least place in play-offs

Wales 1 Finland 1
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The Independent Football

It was a kind of triumph and a kind of defeat. The mood in the Wales dressing-room was, said Mark Hughes, an odd one. They had qualified for a play-off for the European Championship, which a year ago would have appeared an improbable achievement, and yet when news came through that Italy had failed to win in Belgrade, there was a surge of regret that Wales had not clung on to the early lead Simon Davies had given them.

"It possibly does feel like a chance missed," Hughes reflected. "But when the players go back to their clubs, I'm sure they will be congratulated for making the play-offs."

The Wales manager kept a sense of perspective by pointing out they were fourth seeds in Group Nine but the trouble was that for the first time in this campaign Wales played like they were. This was arguably their worst display of the campaign, more sobering even than Saturday's drubbing in Milan. Anyone can lose to Italy but at times Finland met ridiculously little resistance except when Wales were reduced to 10 men with Jason Koumas' dismissal for a second bookable offence.

Remarkably, after the 1-1 draw between Serbia and Italy, they could even qualify automatically, although it would require the Italians to drop points at home to Azerbaijan. Wales had fortune enough here in Cardiff last night; to expect anything more would be asking too much.

Davies appeared to bring the ball under control with his hand for the third-minute goal while Koumas handled Mika Nurmela's first-half free-kick. Handballs are a touchy subject in Welsh football given that it was one, wrongly given against them, that ensured Scotland, rather than they, would travel to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup. This time Wales not only rode their luck, they did so in waves.

The match had barely settled when Gary Speed, who in this match broke the record for the number of appearances for a Welsh outfield player, pumped a long ball towards the balding head of John Hartson. The striker caressed it perfectly towards Davies, thankfully restored to midfield until Rhys Weston collapsed with cramp, who appeared to control the ball with his arm before shooting smartly past Antti Niemi. Sami Hyypia protested but it was with understated Scandinavian politeness. However, compared to his fellow Southampton keeper, Niemi was to have a quiet night.

Wales took no inspiration from Davies' early goal and too often their midfield was simply bypassed. Finland had 63 per cent of possession in the opening 20 minutes and although Hughes insists that his team performs better on the counter-attack, this was taking things a bit far. Finland's passing was slicker, their movement better, their superiority obvious.

The only surprise was that it should have taken Finland until the 80th minute to score. All five of their first-half shots went thundering tamely over the crossbar, although they found their range swiftly enough after the break. Andy Melville, who had not played for four months, was there to be exploited but performed admirably.

Twice Jones smothered shots from Joonas Kolkka and then charged down a drive from Mikael Forssell who appeared suddenly unchallenged at the far post. The equaliser was inevitable with two Welsh defenders lingering on the six-yard line, oblivious to Forssell's run which was perfectly timed to meet Kolkka's cross. His header left Jones helpless. Wales looked a tired, battered side who with a slight shift of fortune might have suffered a fourth successive defeat in all matches. Literally and metaphorically, they limped over the line.

WALES (4-4-1-1): Jones (Southampton), Weston (Cardiff), Page (Sheffield United), Melville (Fulham), Speed (Newcastle), Davies (Tottenham), Koumas (West Bromwich), Pembridge (Fulham), Giggs (Manchester United), Earnshaw (Cardiff), Hartson (Celtic). Substitutes: Johnson (West Bromwich) for Weston, 73;Blake (Wolverhampton) for Hartson, 82.

FINLAND (4-2-3-1): Niemi (Southampton), Pasanen (Ajax), Tihinen (Anderlecht), Hyypia (Liverpool), Tainio (Auxerre), Vayrynen (Heerenveen), Riihilahti (Crystal Palace), Kolkka (Mönchengladbach), Nurmela (Kaiserslautern), Forssell (Chelsea). Substitutes: Reini (Alkmaar) for Saarinen, 57; Kopteff (Viking Stavanger) for Pasenen, 82; Kuqi (Sheffield Wednesday) for Vayrynen, 57.

Referee: A Ibanez (Spain).