It was a night to remember at the Sonera Stadium last Thursday as HJK recorded a historical victory with a battling performance over the German giants Schalke in the Europa League play-off first leg. Teemu Pukki scored two fantastic goals to cap a magnificent team performance by the home side which put the Finns on the threshold of the group stages of the competition.
Despite their illustrious domestic history, the Helsinki club haven’t enjoyed too many European nights like this. After HJK made it to the Champions League in 1998, they have only beaten Celtic (2-0 at home in 2000) from the bigger European clubs. The Champions League adventure not only started a whole new period in the club’s history but also acted as the springboard (with players such as Mikael Forssell, Shefki Kuqi, Aki Riihilahti, Hannu Tihinen and Jarkko Wiss) for the emergence of the ‘golden generation’ in the Finnish national team. Today HJK have a similar, unique chance to start a new era in Finnish football if they manage to negotiate the away leg in Gelsenkirchen.
The first leg itself was an even affair with both teams creating plenty of goalscoring opportunities. While Schalke kept possession of the ball more, HJK always looked dangerous on the counter. The first goal of the match on the 18th minute came courtesy of a textbook example of a smash-and-grab attack. After a dribble among a host of Schalke players, Sebastian Sorsa played a long pass to target-man Berat Sadik who shifted the ball to Pukki on the right flank. Pukki then advanced towards the Schalke penalty area, turned inside outside the box, leaving Kyriakos Papadopoulos trailing behind, and hit a delightful shot to the far top corner of the net. The whole attacking move was played with perfect timing and the finish executed with grace. The match then flowed from one end of the pitch to the other until the home side struck another blow for the visitors on the 55th minute. After a moment of confusion for Schalke at the back, Pukki slipped free from the defenders and delivered a controlled finish to the bottom far corner. The visitors chased the away goal but were unable to muster enough menace to find a way past the resilient HJK defence.
HJK’s shape in central area frustrates unimaginative visitors
All in all, this was a maximum performance by HJK. They attacked with pace, defended collectively with grit and organisation, and had the luck that Finnish teams usually fail to deserve on the big stage. Also, the key individuals who failed to show up against Dinamo Zagreb in the Champions League third round (such as Berat Sadik, Dawda Bah and Sebastian Sorsa) played their part. HJK have often played good matches in Europe against quality oppositions, but only lacked the stroke of brilliance to settle a contest; now they had it in the form of Pukki, the new sweetheart of the Finnish fans, whose skill made the difference between two evenly matched teams.
Despite every player having a fine game, excellent tactical preparation and execution were the keys to victory. While against Dinamo HJK still had some elements missing from their game, which ultimately cost them dear, this time around the coaching duo of Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala had learned from past mistakes and did a perfect job in organising the team to deal with anything the Germans were to throw at them.
First of all, HJK were a lot better defending the wide channels than against Dinamo. Both wide midfielder Sebastian Sorsa and Dawda Bah (surprisingly enough) worked extremely hard providing back-up for the full-backs. Rafinha and Tuomas Kansikas were seldom exposed to one-on-one situations as the distance between the midfield and defence remained short for most of the match. However, knowing full well that they cannot defend the whole length and breadth of the pitch, the home side didn’t try to barricade the flanks altogether. With active pressing at key moments they prevented the visitors from counter-attacking through the wide areas, but overall concentrate more on keeping their shape in the central area of the defensive third. Therefore, HJK were comfortable letting Schalke keep possession, retreating close to goal, keeping tight shape and lurking for any opportunity to counter. The visitors passed the ball around but seldom looked like having the ingenuity to break down the home defence.
As a result, HJK’s performance was an impressive example of a mature and patient counter-attacking strategy. The defensive organisation was rigid throughout and the attacking transitions were played swiftly with conviction. Sadik, who had his best match in a HJK shirt, was effective making room for other players during attacking moves and his link-up play was phenomenal taking into consideration the quality of the opposition and his often lax performances in Veikkausliiga. If the former Bielefeld forward is able to maintain this kind of a physical approach to his game, he just might be a genuine prospect for the national team.
All HJK players had an important role to play in the game. Ville Wallén made a few match-winning saves in goal. Mathias Lindströn and Timi Lahti formed a solid, uncompromising centre-back pair. Rafinha and Kansikas were active in both directions. Alexander Ring shouldered the ball-playing burden in the centre of the park while Aki Riihilahti tackled everything that moved with both the zest of a teenager and the robustness of a seasoned warhorse. Bah played a balanced game on the left side of midfield and Sorsa made himself a constant nuisance to the Schalke defenders with his direct running on the right. Sadik’s physical presence worked to unsettle to away defence, a situation that Pukki then was able to take advantage of with his slick movement.
While the Finnish and German media have deservedly saluted Pukki as the main protagonist of the night, too few have noted the mature performance by Timi Lahti, HJK’s fourth choice centre-back at the time. Lahti, playing alongside the experienced Lindström, had a wonderful game against Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Ciprian Marica taking into consideration that this was his first appearance for HJK. If ever there has been a moment that fits the idiom ‘to throw someone in at the deep end’ it was this and the U21 Finland defender handled the situation with calm assurance.
HJK are on the driving seat in the tie, but the contest is far from over. Schalke have scored eight goals in two home Bundesliga matches which serves as a reminder of the immense quality in the squad. The Finns don’t need to play a perfect match, but they must offer something going forward in the away tie (something that they failed to do in Zagreb); ninety minutes is a too long a time to just sit back and defend. On the evidence of the first leg, HJK know they can hurt the Schalke defence with well co-ordinated counter-attacks, and from this they can draw conviction. With the first leg victory, HJK have already added a new memorable piece in their history, but if they want to write a whole new chapter, they must get a result at the Veltins Arena.