LONG gone are the days when the likes of Finland arrived on our shores as unknown quantities or lambs to the slaughter.

Such is the cosmopolitan nature of our domestic game, and the rapid emergence of nations once regarded as also-rans, that England can no longer take victory for granted.

Anything less than that this afternoon, however, is too horrendous a scenario to contemplate.

If England lose to the unfancied Finns at Anfield, qualification for next year's World Cup finals in the Far East will have all but gone west.

Yet anyone who watched England toil for a goalless draw against Finland in Helsinki last October, when FA technical director Howard Wilkinson took temporary charge after the sudden and dramatic departure of Kevin Keegan, will be aware of how fine the line is between success and failure in the modern international game.

This afternoon's crucial encounter is effectively a home match for two of Finland's key performers - Liverpool stars Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypia.

The guile and flair of striker Litmanen, a former Middlesbrough target who joined boyhood heroes Liverpool this season on a free transfer from Barcelona, threatened to undo England last autumn.

And defensive cornerstone Hyypia knows all there is to know about Anfield strike trio Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey,

The likelihood is that at least one of those strikers will feature in Sven-Goran Eriksson's starting line-up this afternoon.

An unthinkable defeat would leave England propping up the table in qualifying Group 9, six points behind Finland and a possible eight in arrears of leaders Germany.

Even a draw would leave Eriksson's side struggling.

But victory would see England go above Finland into second place on goal difference, providing Germany beat Albania.

A win would also give the new Eriksson regime confidence ahead of Wednesday's unappealing trip to Tirana, where Albania have shown they will be no pushovers.

England's hopes have been boosted by Finland, Greece and Albania all taking points off each other, meaning none has established a commanding position behind the Germans.

Finland won 2-1 at home to Albania, Greece defeated Finland 1-0 in Athens, while Albania overcame the visiting Greeks 2-0.

Germany's position seems unassailable.

Having beaten England 1-0 at Wembley in Keegan's last match in charge, and won 2-0 at home to Greece, they are unlikely to slip up tonight in Leverkusen against the Albanians.

England's most likely destiny, therefore, appears to be second spot behind Germany, which would then entail having to endure a nerve-shredding play-off against either another European runner-up or the third-placed country in the Asian qualifying group.

Whatever happens, Eriksson's men look as if they are going to have to do it the hard way.