DURING the course of history, the Welsh have proved they're not a nation to shy away from a challenge.

And the Principality's football team will clash toe-to-toe with the Finns tonight with a burning fire in their heart to seize a Euro 2004 finals play-off spot.

The 11 Welshman that take the Millennium Stadium field - and those in the stand for that matter - know that this is the greatest opportunity of them all to end that 46-year heartbreak and qualify for the finals for a major tournament.

It's now or never time.

After four consecutive victories at the start of this Group Nine campaign, the emptiness the Welsh camp - and loyal faithful - would feel could not be put down in words. It just could not do it justice.

And with the developing talent - or distinct lack of it - coming through the youth ranks coupled with the bunch of elder statesmen in the Welsh ranks who are pondering international retirement, it could be a long time before Wales are in touching distance of the dream they currently clinging to.

Sure, there are a couple of bright kids in the pipe-line but with skipper Gary Speed, fellow midfielder Mark Pembridge, steady keeper Paul Jones, striker Nathan Blake and defensive trio Andy Melville, Adrian Williams and Kit Symons all the wrong side of 30, the Welsh national team's future doesn't fill you with a great deal of promise.

With all that in mind, Mark Hughes will know this is a chance that does not come around all that often and he, or his proud Welshmen, will not pass it up lightly.

He has promised his troops will fight until the last ball is kicked. Let's face it, finishing runners-up to Italy and securing a play-off place is a mammoth achievement for the small, yet tight-knit Welsh squad.

The 4-0 mauling by Italy in Milan on Saturday brought a few of the ultimate optimists crashing back down to earth and now they might sense reality.

But Finland tonight in Cardiff is a different proposition. In front of a roaring and passionate Millennium Stadium crowd, Wales, despite Hughes' limited numbers, can show their mettle.

Excuse the pun, Hughes labourers need to finish the job - and quickly. If not, Hughes' aforementioned heroes with transform very quickly into just another bunch of nearly men.

Speed will lead his out tonight and win his 76th cap, making him Wales' most-capped outfield player. He, like Hughes, will not allow his players to let their nation down when they are craving success like never before.

The feeling at Wales' HQ is that Speed, who plays as a makeshift left-back for internationals, will be moved into midfield alongside Mark Pembridge, if the Fulham new boy shrugs off a foot complaint, and Simon Davies as gritty Robbie Savage is banned.

Cardiff City flier Robert Earnshaw is favourite to replace Craig Bellamy, serving a one-match suspension, on the right-wing and Grimsby's Darren Barnard is set to step in at left-back while Cardiff's Rhys Weston will want to prove he has what it takes at this level if he is, as expected, played at right-back.

Reading veteran Adrian Williams is likely to partner Robert Page in the heart of defence which is missing Danny Gabbidon, Andy Melville and Mark Delaney. John Hartson insists he'll be fit to play up front with Ryan Giggs supporting from the left flank of the Wales formation.