Struggling Northern Ireland found no respite in the freezing temperatures of Helsinki as they suffered a seventh defeat of their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign in a 4-0 loss to Finland.
Michael O’Neill’s injury-ravaged side started well but crumbled after Joel Pohjanpalo’s penalty late in the first half, with second-half goals from Daniel Hakans, Teemu Pukki and Robin Lod piling on the pain.
A crippling list of absentees provides plenty of extenuating circumstances but Northern Ireland have won only three of their last 16 games, and have only scored in three of their nine qualifiers in this campaign – two of those being victories over minnows San Marino.
A young, inexperienced side played some encouraging football in the first half but lacked the cutting edge needed to earn any rewards, and were punished by their play-off bound hosts, who ended a three-game losing streak that cost them any chance of automatic qualification.
The last time Northern Ireland were in Helsinki in October 2015 they had just booked their ticket to Euro 2016, but this time they were without 12 injured players, with O’Neill having to reach ever deeper into the nation’s limited pool of players.
Ross McCausland only made his first Rangers start at the weekend, and was only called up from the Under-21s squad on Monday after an injury to Paul Smyth, but he started ahead of Conor McMenamin to become the 32nd player used by O’Neill in this campaign.
The decision looked a good one as the Linfield academy graduate linked up well with Isaac Price and Dion Charles in some crisp early moves.
When Matti Peltola stumbled on the right McCausland pounced, running down the right and cutting the ball in for Price, but the Standard Liege man shot straight at Lukas Hradecky.
Finland had to wait until the 14th minute for a sight of goal when a half-cleared corner fell for Pohjanpalo to hit on the volley but Conor Hazard, starting in place of the injured Bailey Peacock-Farrell in the city where he spent much of 2022 on loan at HJK, was down smartly to save.
George Saville was captaining the side on the night of his 50th cap but is yet to score in Northern Ireland colours, so it was sadly little surprise to see the Millwall midfielder fire wide after a neat move involving Price, Charles, and Trai Hume.
The game changed when Finland won a penalty six minutes before half-time. Daniel Ballard blocked a shot from Fredrik Jensen but the ball came to Nikolai Alho, who was clipped by Price as he tried to charge at goal.
Pohjanpalo, who started the night with only three goals in his last 20 Finland appearances, took responsibility and sent Hazard the wrong way.
Northern Ireland needed a response but instead conceded a second just three minutes into the second half.
It was a fine goal through Finnish eyes but O’Neill will wonder how Hakans was able to skip through four challenges before exchanging passes with Glen Kamara and then beating Hazard at his near post.
There was a tantalising glimpse of goal in the 69th minute when Price sent in a low cross for substitute Conor Washington, but Miro Tenho did just enough to keep the ball out of reach, and five minutes later substitute Pukki put the game beyond doubt.
The former Norwich man played a one-two with Robert Taylor, rode a challenge from Paddy McNair, and curled a shot beyond the reach of Hazard.
Pukki turned provider in the 88th minute, playing the ball through Ballard’s legs for Lod to poke home, condemning Northern Ireland to their worst result yet in a dismal campaign.