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By Kevin Ashby
A senior Finland team will compete in a final tournament for the first time after Mikael Käld's side defeated Russia 3-1 in Moscow today to win through to next summer's UEFA European Women's Championship with a 4-1 aggregate victory.
The Finns qualified for the play-offs as one of the two best third-placed teams, yet proved too talented for a Russian side which ended their qualifying campaign as runners-up to France in Group 3. Finland extended their record unbeaten run to seven games by winning Saturday's first leg 1-0, Laura Kalmari on target, and today's extension of that sequence means they will be among the eight countries in the 19 January draw for the finals.
Having troubled Russia with their set-piece prowess in Pietarsaari four days ago, Finland were even more effective with the dead ball at the Moskovich stadium. Linköpings FC player Anna-Kaisa Rantanen was the architect of all three Finland strikes, her 23rd-minute free-kick enabling United States-based striker Anne Mäkinen to score the opener via a deflection and the post.
Russia's task became forlorn when Tiina Salmén headed in Rantanen's corner with four minutes of the first half remaining; even the sight of a stray dog chasing Swiss referee Nicole Petignant failed to raise the spirits of the home support. That duo also combined for Finland's third goal in the 56th minute, a carbon copy of the second with the HJK Helsinki defender again getting up superbly to score with her head.
Experience and youth
Russia striker Natalia Barbachina registered the last goal in the 62nd minute, but her effort had little impact on a tie in which Finland proved they have the quality to impress in England in 2005. Käld has assembled a side incorporating experience and youth, with 20-year-old Salmén producing a magnificent display alongside Umeå IK's Sanna Volkonen, the captain.
Practice makes perfect
"We have been practising set-pieces in training and that paid off," Salmén said. "When we went 2-0 up, I was expecting us to go through because Russia needed so many goals. However, we had to maintain our concentration to see out the game. It's so easy to play with Sanna, our understanding is getting better with each game and the levels of communication throughout the team helped us to qualify."
Sweden, Denmark, France, holders Germany and hosts England are already assured of their places in the final tournament. They will be joined by the winners of the two remaining play-offs - Iceland against Norway, and Italy versus the Czech Republic.
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