The title race took a dramatic twist on Sunday as FF Jaro ended TPS’ run of fifteen games without a defeat with a 1-0 victory in Pietarsaari. Meanwhile HJK and FC Honka recorded 2-0 home victories against VPS and Haka respectively. With four rounds to go, HJK may just have gained enough distance to their biggest rivals as they are now three points clear of TPS and Honka are trailing by five. The TPS coach Pasi Rautiainen at least thinks so as he conceded the title to HJK after the Jaro match: “I would be more than happy to get a medal since, no matter what happens, HJK will go about it [and win the title] with the best material in the Veikkausliiga.” Well, we’ve heard all that before coming from Rautiainen’s mouth but the fact is that it is up to HJK now to seize the title for the first time since 2003.
Perhaps TPS’s defeat was bound to come at some point but it couldn’t have come at a worse time. After the World Cup qualifying break, HJK seem to have found their form at last (two games, six points, six goals, none conceded). However, there is still hope for the title challengers since despite good results, HJK’s game still hasn’t convinced everyone. On Sunday, as VPS were piling on the pressure in the early stages in the game, it didn’t take long for ‘Sakilaiset’ (the bigger of HJK’s two supporter groups) to react and start singing “When Mursu [HJK coach Antti Muurinen] gets the sack, we’ll celebrate”. This might seem a bit harsh, since after all Muurinen is taking HJK towards the title at the moment. But even though most fans are perhaps satisfied that HJK have struck form (at least result-wise) at the most crucial stage of the season, the feeling remains that not even the title can redeem the HJK coach in the eyes of their most vocal and demanding supporters. HJK are not Real Madrid and the Finnair Stadium is not the Bernabeu but, nevertheless, the fans demand more than just results. They require domination from the most successful team in Finland especially when playing at home. This is something ‘Klubi’ haven’t really been able to provide all season.
The results from the last two matches somewhat flatter HJK. Against RoPS, HJK had to wait until the 82nd minute to score the second goal and only after this the flood-gates opened. And on Sunday, ‘Klubi’ were outplayed by the visitors at times in the first half. VPS grabbed the initiative and took the game to HJK by playing through the midfield with a variety of attacking moves. Their attacking players were constantly active, switching positions eagerly and making the HJK defence look confused. In contrast to VPS’ active approach, HJK’s playing had echoes of the ‘route-one’ tactics of the latter years of the Keith Armstrong era.
HJK were slow to open play, passing the ball in their defensive third without any sense of urgency, only to boot it haphazardly towards their attackers (Juho Mäkelä and Akseli Pelvas) moments later . VPS withdrew five players behind the ball in midfield but this is not reason enough for HJK’s primitive approach, especially since the visitors were able to play neatly through the middle time and again. If Muurinen’s game plan really was to play the long ball, it failed almost in every respect. For one thing, to play kick-and-rush football effectively, you need to have ball-playing defenders (both in the centre and on the wings). And HJK haven’t got any. Sure, Jukka Sauso or Mikko Hauhia can punt the ball easily over the half-way line at most times but they cannot provide quality passes to areas where the attackers have been ordered to make their runs. Secondly, if the ball is delivered successfully to the attacking third, you need support from your midfielders. The whole unit should move up the pitch to provide support for the attackers or, in the case if the ball is lost, to provide pressure in order to take away time and space from the opposition and force them to make mistakes. HJK failed in both aspects. The long balls were below-par and the midfielders were lazy to apply the needed pressure on the VPS defence with the result that when HJK attacked, there was enough space to land a jumbo jet between HJK’s attack and midfield.
Muurinen’s poor tactical knowledge is among the key reasons for the harsh criticism he got on Sunday. When TPS and Honka have evolved their game and developed their playing identity as the season has progressed, HJK have basically stood still. The HJK fans would like to see their team play a type of football defined by fluid movement and coherent team moves; football that is updated to the 21st century. Often this season HJK have found themselves in a situation where they have had to rely on the individual players to add what has been lacking in their collective performance.
And Sunday didn’t really provide evidence to the contrary as HJK were again saved by their excellent wingers. Dawda Bah scored the first goal on the 42nd minute after being released by Sebastian Sorsa’s ingenious first touch backwards flick. The Gambian could have added a couple more but in the end he had to be content with scoring one and assisting another. The left winger released Mäkelä with a through pass on the 62nd minute to score HJK’s second and put the game beyond doubt. It was Mäkelä’s third strike in the last two matches (seventh overall) which is great news for HJK since not only has the former Veikkausliiga top scorer finally found his scoring boots but ‘Klubi’ have also found their number one striker. This has been a problem for them throughout the season as Muurinen hasn’t been to consolidate their attacking potential successfully to his game plan. Until now, Muurinen had remained undecided with regards to his strongest attacking partnership despite having the best strike force in Veikkausliiga at his disposal (Mäkelä, Jarno Parikka, Akseli Pelvas and Paulus Roiha (who returned from injury)).
Regardless of the flaws in HJK’s game, they now find themselves on top of the Veikkausliiga in a situation where they will really have to outdo themselves if they are to concede the title now. Then again, they have done it before. HJK might not be as supreme as Rautiainen’s mind-games suggest but their performances are definitely not as poor as the Honka attacker, and last season’s Veikkausliiga top scorer, Aleksandr Kokko suggested when talking about Honka’s chances on Sunday: “Have we lost chances [of winning the title]? Klubi will lose matches for sure. They are no good against anyone.” Big words from a man for whom it took sixteen games to score his first goal this season.