All things considered, this was an extremely satisfying night’s work for Wales, who edged out Finland in Helsinki on their Nations League’s return. Even better, they did it without Gareth Bale, the ostracised Real Madrid forward who was withdrawn at half-time owing to a shortage of match fitness.
It was apt that Kieffer Moore, who has superbly spearheaded a talented Wales attack since making his debut last year, made the difference on an evening when Ryan Giggs handed more new faces the opportunity to impress.
Moore converted from close range after meeting a delicious cross by the reinvigorated Daniel James to extend Wales’ unbeaten run to seven matches after successfully blunting Finland, imperious at home en route to qualifying for their first major finals last year. Aside from Leo Väisänen’s slapstick miss, when the unmarked Finland defender conspired to rattle a post from two yards out, Giggs’ youthful side were composed and untroubled as they earned a third successive clean sheet. Ethan Ampadu, another player thin on match fitness after failing to make a league start for RB Leipzig last season, was flawless at centre-back, while the Manchester United teenager Dylan Levitt kept things ticking over in midfield in the absence of the injured Aaron Ramsey.
Levitt did so alongside Joe Morrell, who spent last season on loan at Lincoln from Bristol City, as Wales kept Finland at arm’s length during a low-key first half in which they failed to test the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. Joni Kauko smacked in a volley after latching on to a Joel Pohjanpalo knockdown but the striker had already been flagged offside. The substitute Neco Williams, one of three debutants, operated on the right wing following Wales’ reshuffle after Harry Wilson replaced Bale, who flashed an early effort wide. Giggs has now given 18 players their Wales debuts in the two years since he succeeded Chris Coleman.
Giggs had said Bale, who played only 48 minutes across 12 matches when La Liga resumed in the summer, would struggle to last the distance and opted to limit the risk of injury before Bulgaria visit Cardiff in League B, Group 4 on Sunday. “It was a real juggling act picking the team and Gareth has had the least amount of football out of everyone,” the manager said. “It was always the plan, 45 minutes and if he felt good, [to give him] an hour. But I thought it was best with potentially Sunday in mind to bring him off after 45 minutes and give Harry [Wilson], who also hasn’t had much football, some minutes as well.”
Wales have now won their past three matches without conceding and the margin of victory could have been bigger. Bale was lurking when James’ teasing cross cannoned against the Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, via the defender Juhani Ojala, but Hradecky cleared and Moore’s early header was disallowed after the striker was penalised for shoving Daniel O’Shaughnessy, the Finland full-back once of Cheltenham. “Very often decisions went against him but he kept plugging away and he was there when it mattered,” Giggs said of Moore, who has scored for Wales in each of his three away appearances.
The pre-match discourse was inevitably dominated by Bale, who had accused Real Madrid of making life difficult by repeatedly blocking his departure from the club. But by the end of Wales’ first match for 295 days, there were countless positives for Giggs, particularly the manner in which his side controlled the game and eked out victory, with Moore capping an incisive break by poking in after Ben Davies slipped in James, who hared down the left before crossing. “One lapse in our defence made the difference,” said the Finland head coach, Markku Kanerva.