Goals from Francesco Totti and Alessandro Del Piero kept Italy's UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign on course, but they had to work hard to unlock a positive Finland side in Helsinki.
Finland had reignited their bid to reach Portugal on Saturday with a 3-0 victory here against Serbia and Montenegro - who today lost 2-1 in Azerbaijan - and stuck with the same lineup, with Mikael Forssell as the sole striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Fielding the same tactical system, Italy were without the injured Christian Vieri, the scorer of both goals in Italy's 2-0 victory against Finland in March, meaning Bernardo Corradi led the line.
Attack was the order of the day early on, with both teams seeking to gain ground on Group 9 leaders Wales. After 15 minutes Finland were celebrating when Forsell shot powerfully past Gianluigi Buffon and into the net - only for Croatian referee Zeljko Siric to rule that a corner had been conceded by Italy earlier in the move. Forssell, who was having a superb game at this point, almost touched that corner in, but Buffon pounced on the ball. The goalkeeper remained busy, mostly thanks to Forsell, but on 32 minutes it was Italy who went ahead.
Christian Panucci advanced up the right wing and sent in an incisive cross, which Totti struck first time with enough power to force the ball inside the far post despite a parry from Jussi Jääskeläinen. Panucci then had a header cleared off the line, but Finland comfortably ensured no more damage was done before half-time.
Italy looked to tighten the game after the break, though they were still able to launch attacks of their own, Del Piero and Totti's shots from free-kicks their closest efforts. On 69 minutes, Joonas Kolkka was unlucky to see a well-hit shot blocked by Gianluca Zambrotta, but not long afterwards Italy doubled their advantage.
Much had been made of whether Totti and Del Piero could combine successfully for Italy, but there will be few doubts after a goal of sublime quality. The AS Roma playmaker turned with the ball in his own half and found Del Piero in space on the Italian right. The Juventus FC captain cut in from the wing, entered the box, and shot stylishly past Jääskeläinen.
With that goal, the visitors were happy to play the game out for victory. Italy are now within two points of Wales - having played a game more - and their meeting in Italy on 6 September will be pivotal. Finland, who visit Azerbaijan on the same day, cannot now win the group.