Lets blow off some steam before going into the actual football stuff. The level of defeatism in the Finnish football discourse is simply astounding. The same old sing along was heard all around after HJK’s 2-0 defeat away to Besiktas. The match was shown on the Canal Plus and the Finnish commentators were full of your usual defeatisms. On the one hand, they seemed to want HJK to get trashed but, on the other hand, they were surprised about the fact that the home side could dominate possession throughout the match. Which one is it then: do you want them to lose so that you can say I told you so or do you expect them to go to Besiktas and dominate? Granted, Keith Armstrong brought some realism to the discussion but for someone who has coached HJK in Europe, he should have known better.

The same talk was all over the press. Is there no end to our rotten self-esteem? If we want, like I suspect most people connected to Finnish football in one way or another do, that Finnish football in general and Veikkausliiga in particular are taken more seriously and get better visibility (which means more money and more spectators), people should start taking things as they are and stop obsessing about the negatives. We all know the facts about the standard of Finnish football, but I bet there are plenty of people who don’t know about the positives. Indeed, Besiktas were and are a lot better side than HJK but that is simply stating the bleeding obvious.

For yours truly, HJK did a decent job with what they had. It hardly occurred to anyone that Besiktas actually fielded a very strong first eleven (that included, for instance, Guti, Bobo, Ricardo Quaresma, Matteo Ferrari and Fabian Ernst) and that HJK were without three of their best central midfielders. First of all, Medo, the driving force of the whole team, was suspended. Secondly, Aki Riihilahti, who might not shine as bright in Veikkausliiga but whose worth becomes evident exactly in these kind of matches, was injured. Also Janne Saarinen, had he been properly match fit, would have been an asset to HJK due to his vast experience, despite having been a bit rubbish in the couple of cameos he has made in Veikkausliiga this season. Taking this into consideration along with the fact that HJK were playing against an established European side just three days after the Honka match, there wasn’t much more HJK could have taken from that game. Although, of course, in the end there was. But we’ll come to that later.

Good defensive organisation and even some attacking ideas

Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala deserve credit for doing a decent job especially in terms of defensive organisation and, although it very seldom worked in practice, to a lesser extent, attacking tactics.

HJK basically started with a highly defensive 4-4-1-1 formation that included two midfielder enforcers (Dema and Cheyne Fowler) who had pretty much no attacking obligations. The game plan was, therefore, to sacrifice some penetration for the benefit of defensive organisation. Basically every attacking player had strict defensive duties. Johannes Westö (playing in the hole) and even Akseli Pelvas (central attacker), from time to time, had to track back to offer support to the midfield. Also Sebastian Sorsa and Dawda Bah played a lot deeper than usual which made the formation more like a variation of 4-5-1 (or even 4-6-0 when without the ball). Muurinen and Rantala had also done their positional homework. Sorsa was playing almost as a wing-back in tandem with left-back Rafinha. The idea was to cancel out Besiktas’ left wing (attacking full-back Ismail and winger Quaresma) altogether, the home side’s main attacking channel. This wasn’t purely a defensive ploy because it also made it possible for Rafinha to make runs forward without leaving their right side exposed.

In terms of positional organisation this defensive game plan worked quite well. HJK kept their collective shape. Sorsa and Rafinha were able to keep the respective opponents largely in check and the midfield duo were fairly successful in closing the space in front of the central defenders. As a consequence, Besiktas largely kept to a pedestrian trod, never actually threatening much from situations when HJK players didn’t make individual mistakes. Mistakes, however, were if not plentiful not entirely absent either. Rafinha gave Queresma space to deliver a cross for the first one and Sorsa didn’t close in on Queresma aggressively enough in the second. The first goal was probably offside and the second a fabulous individual effort but, nevertheless, both were down to  individual mistakes.

Attacking was never going to be an easy chore in Istanbul and even if HJK’s attacking play hardly gelled, there was a clear intent in terms of how they tried to make the transition from defence to attack. At first, HJK tried to spread the ball laterally to the wings whenever getting possession. But as it soon became evident that neither Sorsa nor Bah were able to go past their markers or connect successfully with Westö, new ideas were needed. Another route was taken then through the centre where the active Westö was playing close to Pelvas when HJK had the ball. Pelvas started decently, receiving the ball well and playing simple passes and creating some kind of a platform for HJK attacks. On a couple of occasions Pelvas and Westö also connected for a one-two, only for the final pass to be intercepted or Pelvas straying marginally offside. With a bit of luck and better final balls, HJK might have created a scoring opportunity early on.

As the game progressed these efforts became more seldom and Besiktas started to dominate possession. Then something changed. HJK hadn’t had a whiff of goal for most of the game but during the last fifteen minutes they created three excellent opportunities. First, Rafinha made a long diagonal run towards the box, much to the surprise of Besiktas defenders, and was brought down from behind. HJK pleaded for penalty that should have been given but the referee continued to favour the home side. Not long after this HJK launched a fine three against four counter-attack through the left. Bah had the ball in acres of space, he cut inside towards the box and was in a perfect position to deliver a pass between the defence line and the keeper for the substitue Juho Mäkelä to strike his trademark finish. Bah, however, foolishly went for goal and sprayed his shot high and wide. In extra-time Bah made amends for his mistake by releasing Jarno Parikka free on goal. The Besiktas keeper made a well timed rush for the ball and was able to block Parikka’s shot. A goal from one of these efforts and it would have all been different.

Ojala, Wallén and HJK’s Brazilians shine on the big stage

Juhani Ojala put in a man of the match performance. The 21-year-old centre-back back-pocketed Bobo, the robust Brazilian star striker and captain. Rafinha, despite one or two mistakes that could have turned out to be costly, had a fine game at right-back as he contributed with some well-timed attacking runs and kept Quaresma from causing too many anxious moments in the HJK defence. And also Dema’s introduction in the HJK shirt was a promising one as the former PoPa midfielder not only brought industry but also calmness in possession to midfield. And last but not least, Ville Wallén rose to the occasion by making a few excellent saves to keep HJK’s chances of European glory alive.

Where will the goals come from?

Despite being overrun for most of the game, HJK can take heart from their performance with an injury/suspension-cut squad. Even if they failed to score in Istanbul, at least they were able to create chances. This time they need to make them count.

HJK need to be braver, more more effective with the ball and more determined in their delivery. The full-backs should be more active getting forward since both Sorsa and Bah struggled to get past their markers last week. But most of all HJK must sharpen their set-piece play. The few set-pieces they had in Istanbul were hastily wasted. All in all, HJK need to be smart and patient. They will not get many opportunities but when they arrive, they must make the right choices. Bah’s attempt at goal when a pass was the only right solution was a textbook example of making the wrong one.

HJK have a mountain to climb if they are to reach the Europa League group stage (especially now that Medo transferred to Partizan Belgrad). However, the challenge is not an insurmountable one. If they can keep a clean sheet in the first half and find a goal from somewhere a bit later in the game they might, just might, have a chance. The odds are heavily against them but, nevertheless, it will be a big European night at Sonera Stadium on Thrusday night.