It was a big Sunday in the Veikkausliiga in terms of the title race. HJK travelled to Espoo and TPS got their chance to settle the embarrassing score that was their last three matches against city rivals FC Inter. ‘Tepsi’ duly delivered what was expected from the hottest team in the league with a convincing 2-0 victory and maintained their impeccable form by stretching their unbeaten streak to twelve games. HJK, meanwhile, were unable to grab victory against title challengers FC Honka despite three points being offered to them on a silver platter.
This was quintessential ‘Klubi’ of the second Muurinen era: leading 1-0 (Medo scoring from a set piece) at half time and Honka a man down after Sampo Koskinen lost his marbles and lunged into a violent tackle on Sebastian Sorsa on the 33rd minute. They had, therefore, forty-five minutes to go in a match they were in comfortable control, against a team that had been playing games as often as Antti Muurinen had had to trim his whiskers during the last weeks (for the last five minutes Honka were so tired that all they could do was to kick long balls at the direction of HJK’s goal with no one to chase them). And what happened? Demba Savage scored after about a nano-second after the start of the second half. As the Honka players were celebrating, you could not help but stare towards the gates at Tapiolan urheilupuisto just to make sure that no HJK players were still actually returning from the break. Whatever happened at half-time in Honka’s changing room, the same surely did not happen at HJK’s.
For the rest of the match, HJK piled some pressure and Muurinen made the supposed attacking changes which he would have made regardless of what the scoreboard said (“substitutions that were decided in March”, like one Finnish football expert put it before the match). But in the end they had little to show for their nominal chase; Honka actually coming closer to scoring a second goal as Hermanni Vuorinen forced Ville Wallen to a brilliant double save (where would HJK defence be without him?).
HJK’s positive approach
Antti Muurinen fielded a positive opening line-up, starting with Jarno Parikka and the in-form Akseli Pelvas up-front. The visitors also got Medo back from injury sooner than was expected and the Sierra Leonean took his place alongside Aki Riihilahti, who made his second appearance since returning to HJK after spending eleven years abroad. HJK’s centre midfield was all about craft and workmanship which showed in HJK’s collective willingness to take the initiative as they pressed high up the field and were active going forward.
Midfield battle: Style vs. Industry
Muurinen’s approach worked well in the first half. HJK muscled the areal victory in midfiled with Medo and Riihilahti constantly smothering space and time away from the skilful Honka midfielders. Rasmus Schuller and Joel Perovuo were forced to play either backward passes and stall play or pass sideways to the wingers who, because of HJK’s active defending, had to come deeper for the ball. This took the pace away from the Honka attacks, though on a couple of occasions especially the intelligent Schuller was able to play a diagonal pass behind the HJK defence line which caused a couple of dangerous moments in the visitor’s area early on.
Schuller has been ever present in the Honka midfield during the summer and his consistent performances have cemented a place for him in the first team. Schuller’s potential was no secret but it has been a surprise that he has become a key player after making only a handful of appearances. Already at a raw age of eighteen, the Honka trainee plays with exceptional maturity which shows in everything he does. He has a delicate but effective touch which is equalled by his vision for a pass. Schuller’s ability to weight the ball in his passing, which is often flawless, is also excellent. Lehkosuo being Lehkosuo, and thank the football gods for that, he wasn’t discouraged to field Schuller against Riihilahti and Medo, though being very much aware what kind of a treatment he wound get from the rugged HJK players. Therefore, it was an interesting contest in the centre of the park, a classic case of style against industry.
As expected, it didn’t take long for Riihilahti to stamp his authority. The former team-mate of Lehkosuo made both Honka centre midfielders feel his presence with a couple of early fouls. Riihilahti might be lacking match fitness and precision with the ball but his defending was key in the first half as HJK controlled the midfield and stifled Honka’s playmaking. Although the HJK fans might have to wait for next season to see ‘Ägä’ at his best, his positively combative and determined mentality will most certainly rub off on the rest of the squad in the course of the autumn which might be HJK’s only salvation in the title race; left with only Muurinen’s sheepish mentality to guide them, there would be a chance that HJK wouldn’t even be able to put up a real fight.
Muurinen’s capacity to make tactical changes: the same old story
Even if Muurinen deserves credit for his positive opening line-up, again he failed to make decisions that win football matches. The sense of occasion and the urgency they showed during the first period was somehow lost during half time. It’s easy to be a coach before the referee blows the whistle but after it the best are very quickly separated from the rest. Lehkosuo reacted to the need for directness that was lacking in their midfield play and substituted Jussi Vasara for the inefficient Jami Puustinen. The Honka coach didn’t hesitate and wait for the 65th minute until making the substitution but sent a clear message at half-time. The result was that after about twenty seconds it was 1-1 with Vasara providing the final pass after a surging forward run.
With the squad that Muurinen has at his disposal, it does not take a genius to field a good team. In this Muurinen succeeded, so cheers all around. But if his tactical plan of pass-the-ball-to-the-wings (to Dawda Bah or Sebastian Sorsa)-and-rely-that-they-make-something-happen fails, his only reaction seems to be to ask Popovits if he’d be so kind to put on his flat-bottom football boots and do the things he was so good at doing at Haka a few years ago. Ville Taulo might not be in perfect match fitness yet but he was fit enough to travel about 450 kilometres to Joensuu to rot in Klubi 04. Taulo’s abilities were sorely missed in the second half when creativity and dynamism were lacking in the HJK centre midfield (even Medo was not at his best after injury). Muurinen substituted Riihilahti for Cheyne Fowler and threw in Popovits and Mäkelä out of habit. None of the substitutes brought anything into the match. Fowler is a decent player but the defensive minded South African is not someone you’ll introduce when you should be desperately hunting for a victory. Mäkelä and Popovits…well, what can you say without sounding too cruel, are struggling at the moment; Popovits understandably against the inevitable and Mäkelä against his free-falling confidence.
HJK created enough chances to win the match (most during the first half, though) but that notion is somehow beside the point as HJK, yet again, squandered a perfect chance to clinch victory and take a step closer to the title. It’s now four draws in a row which is everything but the form of the biggest title favourite. A couple of weeks ago I predicted that HJK will claim the title at the end of the season, which is still in their own hands to do of course as they still have the slimmest of leads (through goal difference) in the Veikkausliiga, but it is all but certain now as the ghosts of season last are haunting Muurinen’s team all the more than before.