Wales made a winning start to their Nations League campaign as Kieffer Moore struck a late goal to secure victory in Finland.
Fielding a young and inexperienced team in the absence of several senior players, Wales had an early goal disallowed as Moore pushed a Finnish defender before heading in.
Finland missed a glorious chance to take a second-half lead when Leo Vaisanen somehow volleyed against the post from a yard out.
Then with 10 minutes left, Daniel James – Wales’ most potent attacking weapon in Helsinki – sped down the left wing and played a perfect low cross for Moore to convert from close range.
That well-worked goal was a rare moment of quality in a second half that had threatened to fizzle out into something of a non-event for Ryan Giggs’ side.
But the Wales manager could reflect with some satisfaction on a promising evening which saw the emergence of further fledgling talents, including debuts for Manchester United midfielder Dylan Levitt, Liverpool full-back Neco Williams and Swansea City centre-back Ben Cabango.
Although Nations League matches are competitive and carry the potential reward of play-offs for major tournaments, Giggs has always maintained he would use them as opportunities to develop younger players and this was another such example.
In Thursday’s other Group B4 fixture, the Republic of Ireland drew 1-1 in Bulgaria. On Sunday, Wales host Bulgaria at Cardiff City Stadium, while the Republic of Ireland are at home to Finland.
Wales’ wait is over
This match in Helsinki was Wales’ first since last November’s victory over Hungary to qualify for Euro 2020, which was postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Amid the gloom, the silver lining to that delay was that it would give Giggs’ young squad another year to add to their experience and prove their worth before Wales embark on only their third major tournament.
Unaffected by the absence of important players such as Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in Finland, Wales started brightly and were unfortunate not to lead inside four minutes.
Manchester United winger James cut inside from the left and curled an excellent cross for Moore, but the imposing Cardiff City striker’s headed goal was disallowed for a push on Finnish defender Daniel O’Shaughnessy.
James, who seemed back to his electric best after an indifferent second half to last season with United, created another chance just four minutes later but his deflected cross did not quite fall for Gareth Bale inside Finland’s six-yard box.
If the opening exchanges were played at a brisker pace than some might have expected for a match taking place before domestic seasons had restarted, the rest of the first half reverted to the kind of staccato associated with a friendly fixture.
Bale looked out of sorts having barely featured for Real Madrid in recent months and the captain was replaced at half-time, no surprise after Giggs had warned beforehand the talismanic forward was not fit enough to complete 90 minutes in both fixtures of this double-header.
Wales were lucky not to fall behind when Vaisanen found himself unmarked and with the goal at his mercy but, to their relief and amazement, the Finland centre-back hit the post from point-blank range.
There was little to set pulses racing from either side from that point until James picked up possession on the left flank, drove towards the byline and slid a fine ball across to Moore, who scored despite a touch from Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.
Giggs building for the future
Just as Giggs and his fledgling Manchester United team-mates were given their chance to flourish by Sir Alex Ferguson in the early 1990s, the Wales manager has unfailingly put his faith in young players since his appointment in 2018.
Giggs had given debuts to 15 players in his first 19 matches in charge, and he made it 18 from 20 in Helsinki as he started 19-year-old Levitt in midfield, before introducing Williams and Cabango from the bench.
Levitt’s inclusion was one of three changes to the Wales team, with another being Ethan Ampadu’s move from holding midfield to central defence.
Wales coaches at youth and senior levels have long seen the Chelsea 19-year-old’s future at centre-back, including Giggs’ predecessor Chris Coleman who gave him his senior international debut in 2017.
Ampadu demonstrated the benefits of his midfield apprenticeship with an assured performance in Finland, carrying the ball forward with the authority he had previously shown further up the field.
With an average age of 24.5, this squad embodies how Giggs is building for the future and, if they can continue grinding out victories like they did in Finland, they will prove their manager still has an eye on the present.
- 5VäisänenBooked at 72mins
- 11NiskanenSubstituted forSoiriat 86′minutes
- 14SparvBooked at 26minsSubstituted forLamat 76′minutes
- 19KaukoSubstituted forJensenat 71′minutes
- 10PukkiBooked at 47mins
- 14RobertsBooked at 69mins
- 18MorrellBooked at 36mins
- 11BaleSubstituted forH Wilsonat 45′minutesBooked at 86mins
- 8WilliamsSubstituted forWilliamsat 60′minutes
- 20JamesSubstituted forCabangoat 90+2′minutes
- 13MooreBooked at 90mins
- 10H Wilson
- Daniel Siebert
Match ends, Finland 0, Wales 1.
Second Half ends, Finland 0, Wales 1.
Attempt missed. Lukás Hrádecky (Finland) header from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Fredrik Jensen with a cross following a corner.
Corner, Finland. Conceded by Ethan Ampadu.
Kieffer Moore (Wales) is shown the yellow card.
Jere Juhani Uronen (Finland) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Kieffer Moore (Wales).
Substitution, Wales. Ben Cabango replaces Daniel James.
Foul by Juhani Ojala (Finland).
Connor Roberts (Wales) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Leo Väisänen (Finland) wins a free kick on the right wing.
Foul by Kieffer Moore (Wales).
Harry Wilson (Wales) is shown the yellow card for a bad foul.
Thomas Lam (Finland) wins a free kick in the attacking half.
Foul by Harry Wilson (Wales).
Substitution, Finland. Pyry Soiri replaces Ilmari Niskanen.
Foul by Joel Pohjanpalo (Finland).
Neco Williams (Wales) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Attempt missed. Neco Williams (Wales) right footed shot from the centre of the box misses to the left. Assisted by Joe Morrell.
Goal! Finland 0, Wales 1. Kieffer Moore (Wales) right footed shot from very close range to the bottom right corner. Assisted by Daniel James.