For fans and pundits alike, it is little surprise to find hot favourites Germany and Russia occupying the first two places in Group 4 of European Zone qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. As expected, the sides coached by Joachim Low and Guus Hiddink are currently engaged in a two-horse race for the coveted top spot. However, the joker in the pack could yet prove to be a third nation, namely Finland.
Leaving aside for a moment the head-to-head matches between the Germans and the Russians, with Michael Ballack and Co edging to a 2-1 victory when the sides first met in Dortmund, the away trip to the third-placed Finns rates as the toughest assignment for the favourites in this most intriguing group. The Germans’ somewhat fortunate 3-3 draw in Helsinki proved visiting the Scandinavians can be fraught with difficulty, and could even be the deciding factor when the points are added up at the end. Which of the big two will fare least well in Helsinki? It is the Russians’ turn to step up to the plate on Wednesday evening.
In 15 previous meetings in FIFA competitions, the Russian senior side have yet to lose to their Finnish counterparts, winning 11 and drawing the other four. A win for Hiddink’s men on Wednesday against the team coached by Stuart Baxter would undoubtedly boost their hopes of securing the direct qualifying spot. Although they would still trail Germany by a point, they would reclaim control of their own destiny, as Low and his men still have to visit Moscow. A win for the Russians in front of their home crowd on 10 October would take them past the three-time FIFA World Cup winners.
However, there is plenty at stake for Finland in Helsinki tomorrow, as three points would enable them to leapfrog their opponents into second and keep them firmly in the hunt for a berth at South Africa 2010. For that to happen, the Scandinavians will need a dramatic improvement on their performance in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Liechtenstein.
Finland's hopes of a home success over Russia, who won the reverse fixture by a comfortable 3-0 margin, largely rest on strike pair Jonathan Johansson and Mikael Forssell, who have together contributed five of their country’s eight goals in qualifying to date. Hibernian hitman Johansson, now 33 but in a rich vein of form, has earned the Finns vital points with his three goals in three games.
"Russia are a tough prospect. Guus Hiddink is a great coach, people have been putting a lot of money into Russian football - and the team have been improving rapidly as a result. We have our work cut out," Baxter told FIFA.com.
But, as his German counterpart acknowledges, bigger teams underestimate the Scandinavians at their peril. "I had good reasons to issue a warning about the Finns. Their strength is hardly a secret. The whole team plays abroad, in the Premier League, in the Netherlands and so on," said Low.
For their part, the Russians will be hoping Andrei Arshavin can reproduce the scintillating form he showed for Arsenal in the latter stages of the English season. The attacking midfielder, scorer of two of his country’s nine goals in qualifying so far, contributed six goals and eight assists in the second half of the Premier League campaign. "Russia are probably the best footballing team," Germany midfielder Thomas Hitzlsperger reflected in conversation with FIFA.com.
The question is whether the Sbornaja have matured sufficiently to apply their skill and quality when the pressure is at its greatest. Tomorrow's showdown in Helsinki looks likely to provide a few answers.