There was a real sense of expectation in the air at the Sonera Stadium last Wednesday as HJK took on Dinamo Zagreb in the first leg of the Champions League third round. Few HJK fans may have pinned their hopes on actual UCL qualification, but many regarded the home team having at least a solid chance of beating the Croatian champions in the two-legged tie.

HJK started the match brightly, testing the visitors’ defence with a couple of rapid counter-attacks. Then on the 14th minute, the feeling of anticipation turned into euphoria in the stands and on the pitch as Alexander Ring slipped clear from the Dinamo defence, picked up Dawda Bah’s excellent through pass, and coolly lifted the ball over the hesitant keeper Ivan Kelava.

The bliss didn’t last for long, though. Five minutes later, the visitors countered through the right, Fatos Bećiraj drilled in a cross inside the penalty area that, for the puzzlement of all, Rafinha clipped into his own net. Obviously the situation came suddenly and the Brazilian was running flat-out towards the goal, but, nevertheless, the decision to try to clear the ball was blatantly the wrong one since the nearest opponent was a good few meters behind him. Rafinha, who was one of HJK’s stand out performers, failed to adhere to one of the most fundamental defensive lessons: always know where the nearest opponent is.

After the equaliser, Dinamo started to get a better grip on the match and pinned HJK back into their own half of the pitch. The hosts may have lost control of the game, but they still showed that unlike last season, they are able to work effectively as an organised unit and minimise space in the crucial areas in and around the penalty box even when the opponents are dominating possession. As a result, the visitors could rarely play a clean ball into the danger zones and were only able to trouble the HJK keeper Ville Wallén with long-range efforts.

Dinamo started the second half actively with the intention of breaking the home side right at the beginning. They piled in the pressure with quick attacking moves through the wide channels, getting men forward and pressing high with numbers. Due to the high pressing, HJK had trouble opening play from the back and they had to withdraw into their shell close to goal. The home team’s toil paid off, however, as after about ten minutes of Dinamo’s domination, their early push ran out of steam. The visitors dropped the high pressing game and immediately hosts started to make better use of the ball and got more players forward.

During this period, HJK showcased some good possession football and created two excellent goalscoring chances. Pukki created the first one playing a cross in front of goal from the left side of the box, but Sadik’s first-time shot was blocked by the keeper Kaleva. The second opportunity also fell to Sadik, but Kelava this time stopped the header. And as so often happens when playing against a quality team, if you fail to deliver when push comes to shove, you are made to pay for it in the end.

On the 77th minute, after a long spell of possession by the visitors, the playmaker Sammir slipped past the HJK centre-backs Juhani Ojala and Mathias Lindström and scored the winner. HJK brought on Jari Litmanen and Akseli Pelvas but, in the end, had to settle for another ‘honourable defeat’.

Tactical conclusion: Dinamo’s fluid 4-1-2-1-2 beats HJK’s flat 4-4-2

HJK tried to approach the match with their fluid interpretation of 4-4-2 (with Bah playing closer to the front two, Zeneli functioning as an inverted winger and Pukki moving more freely in the attacking third), but in the end it was the visitors who showcased better movement and were more effective in their application of the 4-4-2 formation.

First of all, Dinamo played with a narrow diamond formation in midfield which gave them a numerical advantage in the centre of the park. They clearly knew Bah’s attacking importance to the HJK’s attacking approach, especially when paired with Aki Riihilahti, and, therefore, made sure that when the Gambian moved into an advance position there was at least one player (often the experienced midfield destroyer Jerko Leko) keeping him off the ball. In the early stages, Bah was able to receive the ball further up the pitch, but as the game progressed the visitors pinned Bah back by cancelling space with active pressing in centre-midfield.

Bah, therefore, had to drop into a deeper position closer to the HJK defenders which caused problems when the hosts tried to open play from the back. If they aimed to play the opening pass past the Dinamo midfield and inside the visitors’ half they also had to bypass their own midfield players, and because of this the defenders were often resorted to play difficult searching passes to Pukki. With Bah, Ring and Zeneli unable to push forward early enough, Pukki was left stranded with the ball between the HJK midfield and the lone front-man Sadik. This move also deprived HJK of any hope of attacking on the counter due to the distances between the players. With the active pressing Dinamo effectively stripped the home team of their attacking weapons, which is something that hasn’t happened to HJK all season.

Then when Dinamo had the ball, they pushed the full-backs forward (especially the Argentinian Luis Ibanez on the left was lively) to provide the width that their narrow midfield lacked. Also, Sammir, playing at the tip of the diamond, constantly roamed from his position with either Mehmed Alispahic in midfield or Bequiraj in attack occupying the free space. With stearn organisation, HJK managed to take out the visitors’ counter-attacking threat for the most part, but this also meant that, with so many players behind the ball, HJK couldn’t themselves make effective attacking transitions. Despite HJK’s organised defending, however, Dinamo also had the quality to attack patiently with short passing surges especially through the wide channels.

Dinamo’s substitutions change the game

It is often erroneous to congratulate coaches for making a good substitution. This time though Dinamo coach Juroslav Kurcic definitely deserves all the back-slapping he can handle for timing his substitutions to perfection. Kurcic brought on Ante Rukavina in attack and Mateo Kovacic in midfield halfway through the second half exactly at the moment when HJK had momentum and looked like scoring. The changes instilled a fresh sense of energy in the visitors’ game and, as the game wore on and the HJK players began to show increased signs of fatigue, perhaps were the deciding factor in the outcome.

HJK head coach Antti Muurinen also acknowledged that energy and fatigue were crucial factors in the defeat: “Tempo was fast and this caused mistakes. Again we conceded two goals easily. The quality of the oppositions showed. You could tell that we got tired and it somehow showed that we were exhausted in the later phases of the match.”

Muurinen is right in his analysis that it was much due to fitness why HJK lost the game in the end. However, the fact that he realised this raises the question why he didn’t do anything about it. While Dinamo brought on Rukavina and Kovacic when they were struggling, HJK failed to react accordingly. Almost immediately after Dinamo’s substitutions the focus shifted towards HJK’s goal. There was a long period when the visitors simply played cat and mouse with the home team and you could plainly see, like Muurinen concedes, that the HJK players were growing more exhausted every minute, and that it was only be a matter of time until Dinamo would create a chance to score. But, still, nothing was done to remedy the situation. Almost for the whole duration of this spell, Litmanen was sitting on the bench after having done his warm-up and listening to a seemingly endless tactical lecture from Juho Rantala. When the game finally paused after a long spell without any breaks and HJK had the chance to make the substitution (preferably two; Sorsa had already come on on the 61 minute when HJK were still very much in the game), Muurinen and Rantala missed their cue completely. After this it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes until Dinamo did the inevitable and breezed past the knackered HJK defence with a slick passing move and Sammir finished off the game, and perhaps the whole tie.

Obviously, Dinamo might have scored no matter how many substitutions HJK had made. But the fact still remains that Muurinen and Rantala bluntly missed their chance and failed to react to a situation inside the match that pleaded for a change. To make matters worse, in this case the reaction was a substitution that they were already preparing, a substitution that had probably been written in the coaching duo’s pre-game script, no matter what the situation or the score whould be: Litmanen comes on in the 75th minute. If only that had happened even when it was supposed to happen all along, but no. The coaching duo deserve credit for their over-all tactical plan and organisation of the team, but if they want HJK to succeed at this level, these kinds of mistakes simply cannot be made.

Despite losing the home leg, HJK must approach the match with an attitude that they are no pushovers, they must play to their strengths and show the same tactical maturity, just without the slip-ups, as they did last week in Helsinki. HJK definitely have an uphill struggle in their hands in Zagreb, but if (and this is a big if) they manage all this and also nip an early lead, they just might pull it off.


At the level of the occasion:

Juhani Ojala: Played a composed match, although was close at hand to watch Dinamo’s second goal. While Lindström struggled on several occasions, Ojala was a calm presence in the centre of defence. The 22-year-old read the game well, made important interceptions, cleared the ball emphatically whenever the situation demeaned it and was strong in one-on-one situations. Hasn’t always been at his best in Veikkausliiga this season, but showed that he has developed further from last season and is ready to make a big impression both at his future club Young Boys (transfer due in August) and the Finnish national team.

Teemu Pukki: Considering that the 21-year-old was without the ball for long periods, whenever the former Sevilla man got the ball (in which case he was usually alone against two or three defenders) he made whatever use of it he could. Linked play fairly well, didn’t give away the ball, and even managed to get a couple of shots on goal on his own effort. Did what he could, but still not a big performance.

Rafinha: A balanced match by the Brazilian. Has developed the defensive side of his game and showed (to the scouts in the stands) that he has the technical and physical qualities to play at a higher level than Veikkausliiga. Too bad that his only real mistake turned the game.

Alexander Ring: Scored a beautifully executed goal to put HJK ahead and all-in-all had a solid game. Showed his tenacity, his eagerness to be involved in the match and worked extremely hard. The 20-year-old needs to develop his passing further, however, until ready for the big time.

Ville Wallén: As always, the 35-year-old HJK captain was a safe pair of hands in goal. Lead the defence well and made a few good saves when called upon.

Need for improvement:

Dawda Bah: Started well but role diminished as the game wore on. Provided an excellent pass for Ring’s goal, but other than that the Gambian’s attacking impact wasn’t what his role requires. Dwelt on the ball and gave away possession too easily.

Mathias Lindström: Struggled marking the star-forward Ivan Krstanovic. Played as simply as he could and had a decent game.

Aki Riihilahti: The experienced midfield destroyer did what he could, but, despite having the heart, the 34-year-old simply doesn’t have the legs any more at this level. Made a few good interceptions and tackles, but should have also made a bigger impression when on the ball.

Berat Sadik: Linked play well in the early phases of the match, but then succumbed to his usual level. Too soft battling for the ball, tried some immature flicks when a simple pass was required and, did what he has done on too many big occasions in the U21 and full national teams, missed the crucial chance when it came his way. Compared to Pukki’s performance, Sadik played, quite frankly, at the level of a Veikkausliiga player.

Mikko Sumusalo: Couldn’t venture forward as often as he would have liked to and struggled at times in defensive situations. More is expected from the prospect, but due to his attacking qualities the 21-year-old may get another chance in Zagreb.

Erfan Zeneli: Started well enough, only to fade for the rest of the first half. Unlike Ring on the right, dwelt on the ball and didn’t always seem to know what to do without it. Played a fine second half, though, until being substituted for Sorsa.


 Sebastian Sorsa (21 minutes): Brought little to the game as his one-sidedness showed thorough. Had one good chance to make an impact after a dribble but froze completely with the ball when a pass was needed.

 Jari Litmanen (13 minutes): Was able to do what he does best: find space, keep the ball and advance the attack with smart passing. Due to congestion in centre-midfield, drifted too much to wide areas and couldn’t provide a big enough impact. Had one good chance to score inside the penalty area, but his shot was blocked.

 Akseli Pelvas (9 minutes): Was active, fought for the ball, but couldn’t make a real impact.