Glory comes in many forms, some of them very strange indeed – and so too does disappointment. The Finland coach Markku Kanerva had described this as the biggest game in his nation’s history and for 75 minutes, it looked as though they were on their way to the knockouts. It had not exactly been desperate defiance – there was too little riding on it for Belgium for that – but still, progress through the group at their first tournament would have been a remarkable achievement.
And then came a Thomas Vermaelen header that hit the bar, hit the luckless Lukas Hradecky and bounced over the line. Suddenly Finland were probably out and, thanks to the ludicrous competition format, England, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Sweden and France were all through. Romelu Lukaku, having already been denied by a very tight offside call, then added a second, his third of the tournament.
“We can take many lessons,” said the Belgium coach Roberto Martínez. “These games, if you cannot concede a goal and if you allow one chance – and the movement of the two Finnish players up front is very, very good, then the game becomes impossible. We adapted well.”
But this was a night, in St Petersburg at least, of weirdly little tension. Finland set out to resist and endure and try to get a point that, at worst, would have secured a place in the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.
Given the only way Belgium could lose top spot was to lose this game, there was air of futility from the off. The only player who really looked motivated was Lukaku, who now stands level with Cristiano Ronaldo, Patrick Schick and Georginio Wijnaldum in the top goalscorer’s list.
That flatness is an indictment of the format. Quite aside from the advantage the sides in the later groups have, knowing exactly what they need to progress, Finland were advantaged by playing Belgium last. Belgium knew they were already through and so made eight changes from the side that had come from behind to beat Denmark on Thursday. Perhaps that is not so dramatic given that Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Axel Witsel came off the bench in that game, and were started seemingly with the intention of getting minutes into their legs as they recover from injury.
“I was delighted because if you had told me before the tournament started, what are your goals after three games, one would have been to get nine points and one would have been to get all the injured players back playing,” said Martínez. “At that point Axel and Kevin had not played in any of the friendlies and Eden had played eight minutes against Croatia. Clearly today to be able to see 90 minutes from Axel and Eden and all the minutes Kevin had, I’m very happy with that.”
Hazard was quite open on Monday about his lack of sharpness, but it is coming. “He was almost free,” said Martínez.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen him turning, twisting, right and left, there is not one worry in my mind, he feels strong, he feels happy, his body is reacting well. The next aspect is to see him with that final pass and that shot that finishes in the back of the net.”
Occasionally somebody, usually De Bruyne or Lukaku, and on one occasion Finland forgot themselves and did something proactive, but for the most part the first half was played at walking, and fairly often standing, pace.
As Finland tired, a Belgium goal gradually became increasingly likely and Hradecky, the Finnish sports personality of the year, had made a couple of useful saves before his moment of misfortune.
Belgium will face a third-place team in Seville in the last 16 having learned little against pedestrian opponents about whether a defence that looked so slow last week can be patched up. For Finland, three points and a minus two goal difference is unlikely to be enough.
If they are on the way home, thoughts of Christian Eriksen will, inevitably shape the perception, but they did win a game, and held their own for substantial periods against both Russia and Belgium. There have been many worse tournament debuts and the memories, at least, can be something on which to build.