The two fixtures on the last day of May had welcomed the Group 4 summer break. The table made for somewhat uneven reading, as one encounter would be fulfilled only after the summer break (Finland v Wales), but nevertheless, the current standings were as would’ve been expected. The two heavy weights were battling it out for the top berth, whereas the two minors were doing their best in order to be a nuisance, perhaps more to each other than to the two top teams.
The double header between the Netherlands and West Germany had obviously received a lot of attention, not just across the group, but on a global level. They had tied both matches, 0-0 in an exciting encounter in Munich, and then 1-1 in Rotterdam, where van Basten had struck late on to deny the West Germans a win to avenge the painful European Championships semi-final loss in ’88.
Even if the Dutch were atop the table, they had not been firing on all cylinders under the new regime. There had been reports of some discontent within the squad, and a return of three goals from their opening four qualification matches had hardly set the group, let alone the continent, alight. Libregts had predominantly opted for attacking formations, though they had been more cynical, as you’d have expected, on their journey to play bitter rivals West Germany away. The loss of injured star forward Gullit had hardly been helpful, and without his AC Milan companion’s presence, van Basten had also seemed to struggle. They were more than sound at the back, though, and Riedle’s fine header to open the scoring in Rotterdam had been the only goal they’d conceded. In order to maintain their pole position, the Dutch knew they would have to win their two remaining fixtures. In particular Wales away would be a big ask, even given the current table circumstances. Seven Dutchmen had started all four of their qualifiers, and by half term 20 players in total had been in action for the Netherlands. They were the masters of late goals, as all of their three strikes so far had arrived inside the final ten minutes. A quite remarkable fact.
West Germany had already concluded their three journeys, and were looking forward to two home fixtures post summer. They had possibly looked the likelier side to win in either of their two clashes with the Netherlands, but had twice had to settle for a share of the spoils. In addition, their final qualifier ahead of the summer break had only seen them draw in Wales, and they would now be needing assistance from the Welsh to stand a chance of finishing top. They had looked particularly impressive in midfield so far, the West Germans, and the emergence on the international stage for young Cologne midfield man Häßler had possibly been their most eye-catching reward hitherto. Up top, they had not always seemed as sharp as they’d have wanted. Five players had started all four of their qualifiers, and, like with the Dutch, a total of 20 players had so far participated.
Wales had lost their one away fixture, thanks to that late Gullit goal in Amsterdam, and would have been desperately disappointed not to have won against Finland at home. They’d only managed a 2-2 draw, having won comprehensively against the same opponent in the previous qualification. New manager Yorath had not always had it his way, and for the third and final match ahead of the summer break, he had even decided to alter the formation in order to accommodate all three of their star forwards: Saunders would accompany Rush and Hughes up front in a 3-4-3. They had battled well against the mighty West Germans and held them to a creditable scoreless draw. However, in the circumstances, it had not been sufficient for the Welsh to be able to have a direct impact on the qualification say. In addition, they’d seen influental midfielder Horne, who’d had a man of the match performance against the West Germans, pick up a second booking, making him ineligible for their first autumn fixture. In an over all relatively poor midfield so far, he would be a big miss. Five Welshmen had taken to kick-off in all three of their matches, and in total 19 players had been in action.
As for Finland, new boss Vakkila’s first campaign had probably so far been something along the lines of what had been expected. That fine draw in Swansea had given them hope that they could indeed avoid finishing bottom. However, they had suffered a massive home defeat at the hands of the exuberant West Germans in their opener, and already revealed a lack of quality within the side. It had particularly been in midfield where they had looked weak, and perhaps had Vakkila’s tactics also not always benefitted them. The emergence of striker Paatelainen as a prospect of continental proportions had possibly been their biggest talking point yet, though at the back they had been exposed when the opponents had upped the tempo. Vakkila had seemed to give quite a lot of responsibility to midfield playmaker Ukkonen, though the Belgium based player had failed to deliever, despite scoring with a fine free-kick in Wales. Finland were a robust collective, yet one which was lacking in skill. Five out of the 19 players which had so far had qualification playing time had begun all three of their matches. Finland were looking at their next fixture, at home to Wales at the tail end of the Nordic summer, as their chance to get away from rock bottom.