IN the Welsh red corner stood Paul Jones. About 110 yards opposite in the Finnish blue (and white) corner he was faced by Antti Niemi.

Friends, training partners, yet rivals.

Last night was the first time Saints' two international goalkeepers had returned to Cardiff's magnificent Millennium Stadium since the FA Cup final as Wales and Finland went head-to-head in their crunch Euro 2004 qualifying match.

Back in May Niemi was given the nod over Jones, although the Welshman did eventually appear against Arsenal after a second-half injury to his goalkeeping colleague.

Thankfully there was no such competition last night as both are very much first choice for their countries.

It finished 1-1, but Jones did enough to claim a points decision in any comparison with Niemi.

After Simon Davies delivered what was almost a knock-out blow to Finland after just three minutes, Jones was forced into a succession of outstanding second-half saves as ten-man Wales soaked up the pressure until Mikael Forssell's 78th minute equaliser.

In fairness, both keepers looked extremely assured and could do little about the goals.

Jones shaded it largely thanks to being given far more chances to impress.

With a 1-0 scoreline for most of the game, there were plenty of other reminders to the Cup final, not least the spine-tingling atmosphere.

The roof was again closed, the noise of 72,500 fans was again deafening and the Welsh certainly touched the Saints fans for pure passion.

From international crowds of just 5,000 a few years ago, this qualifying campaign has been a total sell-out and seen football catapulted above rugby union in Welsh affections.

It was a crucial match for both countries, albeit for differing reasons.

The result eliminated Finland, but guaranteed Wales a place in the play-offs in their effort to qualify for a first major championship final since 1958. But both nations can consider themselves fortunate to have such worthy guardians between the sticks.

Jones, the older man by five years, is regarded as perhaps the best shot-stopper in the Premiership. He is capable of breathtaking saves.

But there have been occassional mistakes and there is certainly less of an aura of calm compared to Niemi.

Naked women could be swallowing fire in the centre-circle and you get the impression the Finn would still always remain ice-cool and 100 per cent focussed on the job in hand.

It's a mentality, allied to a great consistency in his performance, which breeds confidence in those around him.

Jones vs Niemi, a McEnroe vs Borg contrast? Perhaps not to that extreme, but you get the picture.

And one year on from Niemi's £2m arrival at Saints, both now could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja-vu.

Then the pair were involved in an identical clash in Helsinki, when the Welsh were convincing 2-0 winners.

Jones also then held the upper hand at St Mary's, before Niemi took over for most of last season.

Yet a summer injury to the Finn has seen Jones in pole position again and he's certainly not flapped at his chance.

Three consecutive clean sheets in the Premiership, a man of the match display in the 1-0 win against Manchester United and 350 minutes without conceding have put him firmly in the box seat.

While both remain at Saints, one top quality keeper must sit out. That man is inevitably unhappy.

Yet as long as both remain at Saints, the happiest man of all is surely manager Gordon Strachan.

On last night's evidence, he has perhaps the strongest goalkeeping unit in the entire Premiership.