HJK Helsinki 2 Lahti 2 (HJK win 5-3 on penalties)
Jari Litmanen and Valeri Popovitch played yesterday in the battle of the wily, legendary old boys, or ‘the king’ against ‘the czar’ as it was billed by various Finnish media. Litmanen is of course the king, having played at the highest level throughout his career and led the Finnish national team for well over a decade. At the age of 38 he’s now with his home town team, FC Lahti, having been told he has to play regular club football to be in contention for Finland.
The czar is Valei Popovitch, who was a victim of the Sedu Koskinen revolution at Valkeakoski’s Winter Palace. To stretch the metaphor well beyond breaking point, Koskinen and Huttunen acted as Lenin and Sverdlov, to Popovitch’s Nikolai II, turfing him out of the club after over a decade at Tehtaan Kenttä.
The unfortunate thing about this metaphor (apart, obviously, from its convoluted crapness), is that it makes HJK coach Antti Muurinen into some kind of omnipresent life-giving deity, bringing back the dead for one last, glorious chance at redemption. HJK signed Popovitch on a one year contract, after he was unceremoniously booted out of Haka, and after a lacklustre 2008 season the change of scenery was said to have revitalised Popovitch. Another 38 year-old, he gave a couple of interviews about how great it is to work with HJK’s young striking talents Akseli Pelvas and Jarno Parikka, which is what he does best: spotting quick players making intelligent runs, and creating the time to wait until a good passing option presents itself.
These two players with a combined age of 76 are the big stars of this year’s Veikkausliiga, and it was instructive to watch how they approached the game. Litmanen wore a scarf and tracky bottoms, compared to the legging-short combination everyone else wore, despite a temperature well above freezing. While Popovitch worked lovely triangles with Medo and Parikka, including one flowing move that swept the play across field and back again before Sorsa struck a post with a rasping drive, Litmanen rarely left the centre circle.
He is coming back from injury (he’s eternally coming back from injury) so it wouldn’t do to be too harsh on him, but it was not a vintage Litmanen performance. He made one tackle on Dawda Bah that earned a standing ovation from the ever-forgiving crowd, but overall he did not have the same understanding with his team-mates. Konsta Hietanen, Drilon Shala and Mohamed Fofana are not that much worse than their HJK counterparts, but if the king is not training with them regularly because of his injuries, it’s difficult to build an understanding.
When Popovitch attacked a corner on 23 minutes there was a clash of heads, and his marker inevitably left the field clasping an ice pack to his forehead. Czar 1, King 0. There’s still time for Litmanen to get into shape, and get his team into shape, before the season starts, but it will take a bit of work on yesterday’s performance.
Parikka scored a neat first goal, and had a very convincing game. He has really become HJK’s leading striker, with good movement and pace creating chances for himself and his team mates. When Kalle Eerola nodded in an own goal from Tuomas Haapala’s cross the game looked finished, but Lahti went straight up the other end to make it 2-1 through Jussi Länsitalo from a Kalle Eerola freekick. There was still time for Drilon Shala to have a shot at Wallen, before the referee brought an end to an entertaining first half.
Muurinen brought off Popovitch for Mäkelä at half time, completely changing HJK’s tactical outlook. While Popovitch thrives on dropping deep into midfield to collect the ball, laying it off and making the defenders chase around and lose their positions, Mäkelä offers a more physical approach. It wasn’t too effective either, with the numerous crosses sent into the box going begging. HJK easily had enough chances to win the game, but after Heikki Haara’s equaliser the game went to penalties. There is no extra time in League Cup football, and how Kalle Eerola must wish there was after he crashed his penalty against the bar.
He was the only player to miss, and HJK won the shoot-out 5-3. There followed the most pathetic celebration of shoot-out victory I think I’ve ever seen, and HJK progress to the semi finals to play IFK Mariehamn at Finnair Stadium on 4 April, after the Ålanders beat VPS 3-1 in the quarter finals. The competition offers no European qualification and suffers from small crowds, but it is enjoyable enough in it’s own right.
The other semi-final will be Tampere United v TPS, at an undetermined location. Tampere does not have a pitch suitable for football at this time of year, so we’ll see what the clubs come up with. TamU won their match in Jakobstad 1-0 thanks to a goal from Antti Pohja. Pohja has suffered from a mystery illness this winter, causing fatigue and restricting his training, but he looks to be on the way back after playing the second half yesterday.
TPS overcame Honka thanks to Aleksandr Kokko completing his hat trick with an own goal in the last minute of the match. The game finished 2-2, and Henri Aalto missed his penalty to give TPS the win. Highlights here.
Any comments you’re too shy to post below can be posted in our facebook-group, where this week we’ve been discussing why Rosenborg have had a couple of duff seasons recently, if Alexei Eremenko Jr will make a difference to the Finnish national team, and how badly broken Brann Bergen can be repaired.