HJK in 2011: the double, transfers and near-success in Europe

Wed, Nov 23, 2011

Finland, Veikkausliiga

2011 was a season to remember for HJK. Not only did ‘Klubi’ won their third consecutive title and the Finnish Cup (overall their 24th league championship and 11th cup victory), but they did this in a swashbuckling fashion. The Helsinki team finished the season with a 24-point lead to second-place Inter and scored a whopping 86 goals in 33 matches while conceding only 23.

As testament to their superiority, HJK, time and again, ripped the other title contenders apart. The season highlights included a 4-2 home victory over Inter (a result that flatters the visitors greatly), 2-0 win away to Honka and 6-2 and 6-0 demolitions at home to TPS and JJK respectively. HJK also exorcised any Honka demons they may have still harboured by collecting 7 points from three games (two away) against the Espoo team (as they did against Inter). The only flaws in the season’s makeup were the two defeats inflicted by TPS (both away).

HJK had the title in the bag already in late summer, but, despite a non-existent title race, HJK fans experienced a season’s worth of drama in Europe.

Schalke thrill turns into disappointment

After years of failures in Europe, HJK finally had a squad that gave them license to dream about success. Their phenomenal start only served to raise expectations as HJK made Champions League history in the 2nd qualifying round by beating the Welsh champions Bangor City 10-0 at home and 13-0 on aggregate (the highest scoring victories ever recorded in the tournament). Huge expectations were placed on the 3rd round meeting with Dinamo Zagreb, but in the end the Croatians beat HJK 3-1 on aggregate. The defeat, though, still meant they were able to find consolation from the Europa League.

However, when they were drawn against Schalke, perhaps the toughest opponents in the draw, few dared to hope for success. Contrary to almost all expectations, HJK managed to keep the dream alive for 135 minutes as they memorably beat Schalke 2-0 at home in the first leg and lead 3-2 (on aggregate) during half-time in Gelsenkirchen. The sky came down in the second half as the 2010 Champions League semi-finalists ran rampage and went through to the Europa League with a 3-6 aggregate result. Regardless of the monumental disappointment, HJK proved that on their day, and with a maximum performance, the team were good enough to challenge most teams in Europe.

The Schalke matches may not have brought lasting success on the pitch, but they did provide a huge boost in revenue through ticket sales and, most importantly, transfers. Star players Dawda Bah and Rafinha were sold to Augsburg and Gent respectively while Juhani Ojala had already joined Young Boys Bern after the Dinamo defeat. Although prominent players, the trio remained small bait when compared to the hero of the season: Teemu Pukki.

At his best Pukki dominated the Veikkausliiga at will, but the 21-year-old striker waited until the biggest match of the season to really explode on the scene. Scoring two spectacular goals at home against the German giants, Pukki became a Finnish phenomenon overnight and the most talked about player since Jari Litmanen. As if that wasn’t enough, the former Sevilla man went on the score HJK’s only goal in the away leg; the goal was even better than the two he scored in Helsinki and in terms of sheer class comparable to any goal scored anywhere in Europe in 2011. Schalke fans probably hadn’t heard of the curly-haired Finn before, but they certainly have wasted no time embracing him since.

All in all, it was a magnificent season for HJK; a season which will not be repeated any time soon no matter how many league titles the most successful club in Finland will go on to win.

HJK’s title team in 2011

Key players

Mathias Lindström (Centre-back: 22/ 2/ 0)

After Juhani Ojala’s departure and due to Rami Hakanpää’s injuries, Lindström became the leader of HJK’s defence. The 30-year-old had the game of a lifetime against Schalke at home as he backpocketed Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, but faltered away as the Dutch striker scored four times. A towering presence in the league with consistent performances, the former TamU defender reads the game well, has good positioning ability and is better with the ball than given credit for. Earned a two-year extension on his contract.

Teemu Pukki (Attacker: 17 games/ 11 goals/ 8 assists)

The 21-year-old former Sevilla striker not only fulfilled his huge promise in 2011 but also became the new face of Finnish football. Was a dominating force in Veikkausliiga and struck gold in the most crucial stage of the season, scoring three fantastic goals against Schalke in the Europa League play-offs. The goals represent exactly the qualities that set Pukki apart from all other players in the Finnish league: stealthy movement, vision, tactical maturity, perfect touch on the ball, lightning pace, unwavering self-confidence and the skill and audacity to do the spectacular. The best player Veikkausliiga and Finland have seen in years. Transferred to Schalke in the autumn.

Rafinha (Right full-back: 19/ 2/ 6)

The best full-back in the league. The Brazilian developed his defensive game and tactical qualities during the season. Had poor games at home to both Bangor and Dinamo but showed his talent against Schalke at home with a swashbuckling performance. Due to his stamina, pace and good technical skills, Rafinha was able to brush off the remaining flaws in his game. Transferred to Gent.

Alexander Ring (Centre-midfielder: 24/ 2/ 3)

The 20-year-old is an extraordinary talent but also a showcase of how the combination of potential, hard work and determination can take you places: Ring made the journey from the lower reaches of the Finnish first division (2nd highest league) to the first eleven of the national team in just one year. Dynamic, hard-working, physical and with plenty of skill and confidence on the ball, the former Leverkusen youth player has all the qualities needed to make an international level all-action midfielder. All Ring needs is to develop his passing and he’ll be the complete package. The revelation of the season.

Ville Wallén (Goalkeeper: 30/ 0/ 0)

The captain had a near-immaculate season. Carried the team against Schalke at home, making a string of great saves, and despite HJK’s domination in the league, had to make one or two important saves per game. As testament to his excellence, the 35-year-old earned his first call up to the national team for the match against Sweden in the autumn.

Important first team players

Dawda Bah (Centre-midfielder: 16/ 3/ 5)

The left winger was switched to centre-midfield this season and at best Bah operated as the focal point of HJK’s attacking strategy. At worst though, due to defensive flaws in his game, the Gambian often left the centre of the park vulnerable to counter-attacks. It was telling that he was shifted back to the left in the tough European fixtures. Regardless of the limitations, Bah played a much better season than in 2010. Transferred to Augsburg.

Tuomas Kansikas (Left full-back: 22/ 0/ 2)

Kansikas was his usual industrious self throughout the season, which is exactly what you expect from the 30-year-old defender. With no special qualities, Kansikas is an epitome of the basic full-back. Hasn’t enough quality against tough European oppositions but is solid in the Finnish league. Unlike expected, the former MyPa man was able to keep his place as the starting left-back ahead of the more talented Mikko Sumusalo.

Juhani Ojala (Centre-back: 17/ 1/ 0)

Last season’s revelation started the season poorly (according to his high standards) but improved considerably as the summer progressed. Again the 22-year-old played his best games in Europe (against Dinamo), which speaks volumes of his actual ability not always evident in Veikkausliiga matches. Transferred to Young Boys Bern in August and was sorely missed at Schalke.

Akseli Pelvas (Attacker: 26/ 16/ 2)

Finally Pelvas made his real breakthrough into the frontline of Veikkausliiga strikers. The former U21 attacker was HJK’s top scorer (2nd in the league) with 16 goals. His goal/minute average was roughly a goal per ever 100 minutes (which is 30 minutes better than HJK’s first choice striker and Finland player Berat Sadik’s). Hardworking and with good overall physical and technical qualities, but without any clear strengths with which to stand out, Pelvas offers a more reliable choice upfront to Sadik and could (and perhaps should) start next season as the first choice striker.

Aki Riihilahti (Centre-midfielder: 19/ 3/ 1)

Again the 35-year-old midfield destroyer showed just how important he is to HJK. In the European matches Riihilahti was one of the stand-out performers, playing to his strengths and holding the team together in the centre of the park. His feet may not move like they used to but the former Crystal Palace man can still chop legs like in his prime. Stayed relatively injury-free and as a result could take more responsibility on playmaking as well. Considering his future but should continue at least for one more season since he still has a lot to offer for HJK.

Berat Sadik (Attacker: 27/ 15/ 5)

Sadik is a complicated player. On the one hand, the 25-year-old scored 15 league goals, which is a tidy total for any striker. But on the other hand, the goals easily blind you from the deficiencies in his game, flaws that you wouldn’t expect from a player who has the status of a Finnish international. His lapses of concentration, fickle work ethic, poor first touch and composure continuously let him down when the going gets tough. The former Bielefeld man gets away with it in the league, but is simply not good enough in the international arena. Had he converted a relatively easy chance in Gelsenkirchen at a moment when HJK had momentum, HJK might be playing in the Europa League now. This may sound like a cheap-shot but the fact is that the same thing has happened time and again in the national team (including the U21 level) and in Europe with HJK. There’s no shame in being just a good Veikkausliiga forward, so perhaps Sadik should be assessed like one.

Erfan Zeneli (Right midfielder: 29/ 8/ 11)

The most unlikely candidate for the player of the season award. Zeneli’s development from being a constant source of frustration into an effective attacking wide player has been staggering. The fact he was involved in the creation of 19 goals and started 27 games in the league shows the importance of the 25-year-old. Zeneli has developed into a good Veikkausliiga player, but his quality, much due to his slight physique, proved to be not enough in Europe. Has raised some interest in Europe but signed a two-year contract extension.

Reliable squad members

Cheyne Fowler (Centre-midfielder: 25/ 4/ 0)

The South African defensive midfield was a constant presence in 2010 but had to adjust into a diminished role last season. A player that takes what he is given and has no false ideas of greatness, Fowler is a reliable player in Veikkausliiga. Due to his limited passing and positional ability, however, that’s as good as it gets. Scored a freak flurry of spectacular goals in the last rounds of the season. Transferred to VPS.

Rami Hakanpää (Centre-back: 18/ 0/ 1)

Hakanpää has enough talent to be a leader in defence but persistent injury-troubles hampered the 33-year-old’s season. When match fit, the former Honka man showed exactly the qualities that HJK need at the back: leadership, determination and distribution. If he stays fit, ‘Rambo’ will play a key role next season especially in Europe.

Timi Lahti (Centre-back: 8/ 0/ 0)

The U21 defender was loaned from Haka as a result of an injury-crisis at the time when HJK were starting the European campaign. Lahti couldn’t have made a more memorable debut as he played his first game in the home match against Schalke. Showed that he is good enough to play for HJK, but, with limited skill on the ball, it also became evident that the 21-year-old possesses no real special qualities. Despite this HJK saw enough to reward him with a two-year contract.

Jari Litmanen (Attacker: 18/ 1/ 4)

The Ajax and Finland legend never really got going due to injuries and started only two games in the league. Nevertheless, the veteran delivered the goods in the Cup final when no other was up for the task. ‘Litti’ scored the first (a real peach) and set up the second in a 2-1 win against KuPS. Got what he came for at HJK as the 40-year-old won his first Finnish league championship. Considering his future.

Sebastian Sorsa (Right winger: 28/ 6/ 6)

The flying winger started the season brightly but faded as the season progressed. This was partly due to slight injuries but perhaps mostly because Rafinha, with whom Sorsa formed the league’s best wide unit, was sold. Sorsa, due to his good work ethic, tireless running and excellent crossing ability, is the type of player that you want in the team even when he’s not at his attacking best.

Mikko Sumusalo (Right full-back: 17/ 1/ 2)

The 21-year-old had an ok season but, in truth, much more was expected. Couldn’t claim a starting role ahead of the more limited Kansikas and struggled in the European matches. The U21 full-back has undoubted talent but much improvement still needs to be done with his defensive work, particularly with positioning and physicality.

Fringe players

Sebastian Mannström (Right wide midfielder: 23/ 4/ 7)

The jinking attacking midfielder came to HJK with the reputation of a potential Finland international. However, Mannström never really settled in the strategy of the team and even though he was involved in the creation of 11 goals (which is a good achievement taking into consideration his role in the team) they were usually of lesser importance against lesser opponents. Got more chances in the autumn in meaningless games and showed what he can do in the last day of the season when playing in a more central inverted winger role. Nevertheless, the former Jaro schemer didn’t really make a dent on HJK’s title campaign. Will probably remain at the club even if a move might be the best solution for all parties concerned.

Jarno Parikka (Attacker: 19/ 3/ 0)

The fan favourite continued to show little of the promise that once made him a hot prospect. The stealth of his movement as much as his self-belief has gone out the window which explains the measly total of 3 goals in 19 games in a team that scored 86 overall. As a result, the 25-year-old will be packing his bags after five Veikkausliiga seasons at HJK. The move, though, will provide a fresh start for the HJK trainee who, despite his goal-shyness, is a good player with fine overall qualities.

O’Brien Woodbine (Right full-back: 8/ 0/ 0)

Arrived from VPS in August to replace Rafinha, but the Jamaican was nowhere near as good. A decent player with pace and skill but lacked the presence and drive needed to make it at HJK. Returned to VPS.

Other players

Robin Lod (Attacking right midfielder: 2/ 1/ 0)

The reserve team (Klubi 04) captain scored on his debut and showed enough ability in the attacking third to merit a bigger role next season.

Valtteri Moren (Centre-back: 6/ 0/ 0)

A bad injury cut the season short for the Finland U21 defender. May find opportunities limited next season after the signing of Lahti who is of the similar type. Nevertheless, Moren definitely deserves another chance.

Saku-Pekka Sallgren (Goalkeeper: 3/ 0/ 0)

The Finnish U21 keeper is regarded to be a huge prospect but the 19-year-old wasn’t really put to the test last season. Made some slip-ups in the games he played, but all in all looked good enough. Should start showing more character next season and pose a stronger challenge to Wallén.

Joel Pohjanpalo (1/ 0/ 0)

The 17-year-old scored 33 goals in 23 matches at Klubi 04 and was elected best player in the 2nd division. Made his debut in the first team and the statistics alone should guarantee a chance to impress next season, but it may be that the striker will go out on loan to some other Veikkausliiga team.

Best XI (4-4-2):

HJK best XI in 2011

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2 Responses to “HJK in 2011: the double, transfers and near-success in Europe”

  1. shraga Says:

    Fowler is a great player, if you let him more space on the midfield rather than playing stiff tactical game

  2. Markus Kitunen Says:

    Thanks for the comment! I disagree a bit there though, since I believe Fowler fits well into a limited defensive midfielder role but struggles when given more responsibility on the ball.

    However, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of a role he is given at VPS next season where he’ll meet up with his old coach Olli Huttunen. VPS will definitely aim to play more football next term with Huttunen in charge and with the new players they have (Parikka, Fowler and Strandvall). So let’s see if Fowler proves me wrong. Best of luck to him!

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