HJK entertain Schalke tomorrow in the play-off round of the Europa League. Despite the undeniable fact that HJK are marching towards the Veikkausliiga title, the home tie against the German giants is an event that eclipses their whole season (unless they make it into the Europa League group phase of course).
The match created a huge buzz as the demand for match tickets caused a meltdown in the online ticket shop. The match is sold-out but it is an unfortunate affair that probably only half of the crowd come to the Sonera Stadium tomorrow to watch the home side while the rest are perhaps motivated more by an opportunist attitude induced by the rich assortment of international stars on show. Regardless of the motivational factor for the home crowd, even fewer are audacious enough to dare to dream of HJK getting something more out of the game than another ‘respectable defeat’.
On the face of it, it does seem that HJK are without a prayer against Schalke who have the likes of Raul (who doesn’t play tomorrow), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Lewis Holtby and Christoph Metzelder on their books. But then again, who cares, HJK have Aki Riihilahti. As much as Schalke can be described as a near-world-class team that knocked Champions League holders Inter from the competition last season, they can be characterised as a bunch of over-paid has-beens and never-wasses (although they do have some interesting young players this year as well).
Schalke’s inconsistent start to the season has been nothing out of the ordinary. The perennial underachievers were demolished 3-0 at the hands of Stuttgart on the opening day of the season, but then bounced back with a 5-1 trashing of Köln last weekend, with Huntelaar bagging a hat-trick. The fact that the Dutch striker seems to have struck form doesn’t bode well for the injury-ridden HJK defence.
HJK beat FC Honka 2-1 at home with a make-shift squad on Friday with a performance that was far from spectacular. Injuries have started to plague the team at the worst possible time (while Valtteri Moren was just recently ruled out for the rest of the season, Rami Hakanpää has already been out for most of the season and one can rightfully question the decision to sell star centre-back Juhani Ojala before the European qualifiers are over) and because of this the hosts have no other choice but to start new signing and Finland U21 centre-back Timi Lahti alongside Mathias Lindström in the heart of the defence. Lahti arrived from FC Haka last week and is yet to make his debut in a HJK shirt. The home fans can only hope that the 21-year-old will showcase a can-do temperament and approaches the occasion as an once-in-a-lifetime chance to make his mark; the other choice would be to bottle it even before the match has started. Whatever the case, it is an unfortunate situation, but one that needs to be negotiated.
HJK must shore up wide channels
Especially in the away leg against Dinamo Zagreb HJK were extremely vulnerable in the defensive wide areas. Time and again, the home side terrorised the HJK full-backs Rafinha and Mikko Sumusalo and were able to deliver dangerous crosses inside the penalty box. This state of affairs must be mended against the Germans since Huntelaar, despite his weaknesses, is a veritable predator in front of goal.
In Zagreb the full-backs were left almost without back-up by the wide midfielders Erfan Zeneli and Dawda Bah. Dinamo ruthlessly took full advantage of this as both their wide midfielder and full-backs constantly advanced in the channels. The same is expected tomorrow as reports of Schalke’s weekend outing suggest that their wide men had an extremely lively match.
HJK coaches Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala have reacted to this situation and will start Sebastian Sorsa on the right side of midfield in place of Zeneli who has been highly ineffective in the last weeks. This makes clear defensive sense as Sorsa has both the engine and the inclination to do the dirty defensive work. Also, the change should provide a firmer platform forward as Sorsa’s directness complements Rafinha’s more mazy approach better than Zeneli’s inverted style.
However, the defensive problem still persists on the other flank where Bah will start the match. It is a wise move by the coaching duo to use the more defensive-minded left full-back Tuomas Kansikas tomorrow, but without Bah’s defensive assistance HJK will provide the visitors with an open invitation which they will most definitely take. The problem here is not only that Bah has never shown a die-hard determination when it comes to tracking back and buckling down, but also that the Gambian doesn’t have the tactical know-how to form a solid defensive unit with the full-back behind him.
This problem cannot be helped, however, since with the current players, HJK are unable to remedy the situation. One solution would be to start Alexander Ring on the left and use Bah in the centre (against Dinamo at home, Ring played in a narrow wide role on the right). However, then the same defensive flaw would only shift into the centre of the park which would cause an even more serious hazard for the hosts. If new boy Joel Perovuo (Djurgårdens IF) would have had time to settle comfortably in in HJK’s system, only then could this change be considered. Ring was HJK’s stand-out player in Zagreb, both in a defensive and offensive sense, when used in the centre and, therefore, it would be a huge mistake not to use his strengths to the maximum against Schalke.
The situation is what it is and HJK just need to make the most of it. There may not seem to be much hope, especially since they were unable to win either of the matches against Dinamo, but stranger things have happened in football. HJK’s tactical plan was well-built in both games against the Croatians but too many players shied away from the occasion. Tomorrow everyone must be at their very best. If this happens, who knows, it just might turn out to be HJK’s day and the few who had the stomach to expect HJK to triumph would get the most satisfying chance to say “I told you so”.
HJK’s starting eleven (4-4-1-1): Wallén, Kansikas, Lindström, Lahti, Rafinha, Bah, Riihilahti, Ring, Sorsa, Pukki, Sadik