The build-up to this intriguing second game in Group B had all the buzz of a local derby. For the Finns, participation in the tournament was exciting enough, but a meeting with Russia offered the chance to earn local bragging rights. A cartoon in the Russian daily Komsomolskaya Pravda of a bear savaging a Moomin caused a minor furore in the Finnish media last week, with several Helsinki tabloids claiming that ‘Moomingate’ had given Markku Kanerva’s teamtalk for him, galvanising an already highly-motivated side ahead of this must-win fixture.
An air of optimism reigned among the boisterous Finns, who made the short trip across the Baltic en masse, with the rowdy atmosphere in the city centre and outside the Krestovsky on Wednesday lunchtime suggesting that the duty free shop on the Helsinki-Saint Petersburg ferry had been well and truly ransacked during the brief crossing. A proliferation of similarly well-lubricated Russian fans, nominally the ‘away’ supporters for this afternoon’s fixture, led to fears of crowd trouble before the match, but cool heads – and perhaps also the ominous groups of heavily armed riot police – prevailed.
Kanerva, too, erred on the side of caution, fielding a team similar to the one that lost narrowly to Greece in the qualifiers, replacing the injured Raitala with Granlund at right back and bringing in Jasse Tuominen to partner Pukki up front. Stanislav Cherchesov opted for a far more offensive side following Belgium’s late, late show on Sunday night, giving starts to Bakaev and Komlichenko, with Ilzat Akhmetov watching from the stands following his red card.
The first half in this great Enlightenment city was nasty, brutish and long. Kanerva can be forgiven for having guessed that discipline is the Russians’ Achilles heel, and from the outset his side aggressively asserted themselves at every turn. In the 12th minute Granlund was awarded a yellow card for a sly trip on Zhirkov as he sought to break from just inside Finland’s half. And things threatened to escalate five minutes later when Schüller clattered into Fernandes well after the Lokomotiv Moscow right-back had already played the ball out to Bakaev, leading to a fracas on the edge of the Russian box. Dzyuba did well to calm frayed tempers, and was perhaps single-handedly responsible for keeping Golovin on the field as he altercated with Schüller.
But the pivotal moment of the first half came at the other end in the 33rd minute, when Tuominen teed up Teemu Pukki on the edge of the Russian penalty area. After skillfully taking the ball past Semenov with a lovely first touch, the Norwich City striker stumbled and then went to ground under a perfectly-timed tackle from Ozdoev. The Zenit man appeared to win the ball, but the referee pointed without hesitation to the spot.
To a chorus of whistles, Pukki stepped up to take the penalty, his second in as many games after his late spot-kick equaliser against Denmark last week. The Brazilian-born Guilherme, who is touted by some Russian journalists as the country’s finest goalkeeper since Renat ‘the Iron Curtain’ Dasayev in the 1980s, stayed on his feet until the last moment, and, diving low to his left, punched Pukki’s effort onto the post. In the resulting melee, the ball was finally cleared by Semenov, to a deafening roar from the Russian support.
The second half was easier on the eye than the first. With both sides sensing their opponents' fallibility, the game opened up and it became an end to end affair. First Dzyuba fired well over from 30 metres out, before a bicycle kick by Komlichenko was neatly tipped over by Hradecky. Moments later, Guilherme spectacularly parried a speculative, curling effort from Tuominen, and, with Pukki bearing down on him, somehow managed to regain his footing to smother the rebound.
Twenty minutes from time, pandemonium broke out as a mangy stray dog emerged from the depths of the Krestovsky and cantered onto the field with the Finns in possession deep within their own half. Arajurri made a half-hearted attempt to capture the beast, although quite how it had gained access to the state-of-the-art footballing fortress was unclear. Finally, to ironic cheers from both sets of fans and a chant from a small section of the Russian support celebrating the animal’s alleged physical resemblance to Leonid Brezhnev, the stewards eventually succeeded in shepherding it off the pitch.
With Toivio and Urinen still clearly distracted by the spectacle, Golovin won the resulting drop-ball and sent a fine cross into the box. It took a brave intervention by Hradecky, racing out to meet Dzyuba at the near post, to prevent an early knock-out blow.
But at last, in the 89th minute, with most of the Krestovsky having come to terms with the sharing of the spoils, Russia broke again. Fernandes played a long ball up the left wing to Zhirkov, whose immaculate first touch found the on-racing Dzyuba. Diving at full stretch, the Russian captain directed a powerful header past Hradecky, triggering wild and drawn-out celebrations that also had the added advantage of running down the clock, to the visible frustration of Kanerva on the Finnish bench.
After a miserly three minutes of added time, the final whistle went and the gleaming stands slowly emptied to the venerable strains of Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’. It was not a beautiful game by any stretch of the imagination, but the Russian fans will be celebrating long into Saint Petersburg’s White Night regardless.