In the first leg of the third qualifying round of the Champions League HJK put Celtic to the test in Glasgow. Celtic opened they match actively and were in total control for the first 25 minutes but gradually HJK eased into the game, and it was no huge shock when the visitors took the lead in the 47th minute by a Rasmus Shuller goal from close range.
However, this was pretty much it for the visitors as two goals conceded in quick succession turned the tide again with the hosts flooding HJK’s defensive third with constant pressure. In the end, HJK were relatively lucky to come out with just a one goal defeat from Scotland. Nevertheless, by the evidence from last Wednesday, Celtic know they are in for a much tougher contest in Helsinki.
Celtic remain favourites for the second leg, but HJK definitely can take heart from their away performance and play with confidence. The hosts know full well that with a good performance (perfection is not needed against what is an unspectacular Celtic side) they can go through to the fourth round.
This, however, is providing that they do some fundamental things better. Here are three things HJK must concentrate on at home:
1. Attack the biggest concern
While HJK were capable of keeping the ball in midfield at Celtic, their carelessness in possession in the attacking third kept them from inflicting more damage on a shaky home defence. Juho Mäkelä, Demba Savage and Sebastian Mannström conceded the ball too often in the attacking or transition phase. Mäkelä was the main culprit here as he gave away a simple ball in midst of a HJK attack which let Celtic counter and score the equalizer just when HJK had momentum. All in all, the trio’s movement caused problems for the Celtic defence but the use of the ball in the attacking third must be much more effective if HJK are to win the second leg. Maybe the artificial turf will be HJK’s saviour.
2. Midfield the best area in Glasgow, but a more attacking approach is needed
Now that Celtic know what to expect from HJK, the spark of surprise should come from a more active central midfield. Mika Väyrynen, Schuller and Joel Perovuo (who are all expected to start on Wednesday) played well with composure together, but at home they need to be more adventurous going forward. This, however, doesn’t mean playing a more direct passing game but to push forward more to break up the Celtic defence. The one time Schuller did this with intent last week, he got into the score sheet.
3. Full-backs must push forward
Only seldom did HJK push the attacking-minded full-backs Sebastian Sorsa and Mikko Sumusalo forward in the away game. This was expected and made much sense in defensive terms in a match HJK were not expected to dominate, especially since Celtic used the wide areas as their primary attacking channel. In attacking terms though, sitting the full-backs deep left the HJK wingers stranded against a numerical advantage. At home, HJK must be more adventurous, but of course smart, in the wide areas. Sorsa in particular can be tremendously effective when given freedom to bombard down the flank, providing a perfect foil for his wing partner Mansström who cuts inside often.
Sorsa and Sumusalo can provide an alternative attacking outlet that was only seldom present in Glasgow. And it also must be kept in mind that in periods of expected HJK pressure at home, pushing the full-backs forward has a defensive gain as well. If HJK can keep the ball in Celtic’s defensive third, the advancing full-backs will pin the opposing wingers deeper in their own half.