Whenever Iâ€™ve been asked what my favourite match is, Iâ€™ve always found it difficult to bring myself to answer. My emotional half thinks Istanbul in 2005 (Liverpool â€“ Milan) or even Dortmund in 2001 (Liverpool â€“ Alaves), and my more pragmatic side suggests one of Rafael Benitezâ€™s more tactically nuanced displays. But when it comes down to it there is one game that springs out in my mind. And it was after this game that my brother and I coined a private joke between us of any time we saw a team that played attractive creative football weâ€™d refer to them as being â€˜Litmanenâ€™.
Iâ€™ve tried to explain it to family members and friends but they find it inexplicable, a qualification game between two nations thatÂ didnâ€™t qualify and were â€“ to some â€“ minor nations. But to me it was the final, European, display of true trequartista dominance that I witnessed.
Wales were the home side but lined up with a relatively defensive team, leaving Craig Bellamy upfront on his own to cause the kind of havoc that he is capable of against a relatively slow Finnish backline and then having Jason Koumas and Simon Davies providing support from the wings. Then they had a solid, if not particularly showy, midfield partnership of Joe Ledley and David Edwards who could provide a solid spine to the side. Behind them played Carl Fletcher whose role was to eliminate the threat posed by Jari Litmanen.
Finland lined up with in a shifting 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 with Johansson and Aleksei Eremenko pushing forward on the wings to support Mikael Forssell with Jari Litmanen playing in the hole behind. Roman Eremenko and Heikkinen again provided a solid midfield partnership in front of the back 4.
The key battle, tactically, was of course going to be between Fletcher and Litmanen for supremacy. But is would also be important for the Finnish wingers to push the Welsh fullbacks as much as possible and not allow them free reign to bomb down the flanks, which they both liked to do, and in limiting them they stifled the Welsh threat.
Another potent point of this game was the battle between youthful exuberance and experience, with Wales fielding a side with the average age of just over 24 and Finlandâ€™s having an average age of 30.5. Toshack had implemented a stringent youth policy upon the Welsh national team in his management and this team was a prime example of that, whilst it could be argued that many of the Finnish team were playing their swan song.
The first half consisted primarily of Finland probing the Welsh back line but without yielding much success. They had a lot of control of the match with Litmanen at the centre of the majority of their play and it was no surprise when he played the vital role in the first goal. He had managed to wriggle away from two Welsh challenges just inside his own half and played the ball out. The ball came back to him moments later and he played an inch perfect ball over Gareth Bale that Johansson ran onto and finished at a tight angle in spite of the on-rushing Hennessey, who had rashly come out.
Wales came out with and played with a quicker tempo at the start of the second half but as they pushed forward Finland were able to pick them apart with more ease. Johansson was a constant threat down the Finnish right as Gareth Baleâ€™s own special brand of tactical naivety left space in behind him and between him and Nyatanga, which Johansson was able to expose time and time again.
Wales were under siege for the majority of the second half with their Plan B coming undone and Finland managing to dominate, exposing Welsh weaknesses with Litmanen at the centre of everything for Finland. They created a lot of chances but their profligacy meant the scoreline didnâ€™t truly reflect the level of dominance they had. Their second goal came in the 90th minute when Shefki Kuqi finished well into the bottom corner after Walesâ€™ high line was caught out again.
The reason this match has always stuck in my head is primarily because of my age. I was too young to appreciate the golden age of the trequartistas and, like a young Argentine, romanticised about them incessantly. In the 21st century I have only managed to catch the twilight years of many of the best players of a generation and I suppose Litmanen is the only player of that ilk I got a major exposure to (due to his short time at my boyhood club Liverpool). As such he was already a player I had a great amount of respect for and this was the final bow of his that I would witness.
It was a game that would prove to be a throw back to a golden age of purely creative players that I felt I had missed with footballâ€™s ever expanding and dynamic shifting in terms of tactics and the way the game is played.
This kind of display was the antithesis of the English game when I was growing up and Litmanen was probably one of the first players I watched play who made me want to understand the game more. This is why this game was the best I have ever watched, because sometimes it doesnâ€™t matter about the context or the importance, sometimes itâ€™s just about being very Litmanen.