After playing against Alashkert or Armenia and Austrian outfit LASK Linz, Maccabi will conclude the first round of the Conference League group stages as they face HJK Helsinki in Finland on Thursday (17:30). The Finnish side hosts Maccabi at the Bolt Arena before traveling to Tel Aviv on MD4 for the corresponding match at Bloomfield stadium on November 4th.
Queen of Finland
HJK Helsinki is the dominant force of Finnish football as they had won no less than 30 league titles. As a matter of comparison FC Haka who won the second number of Finnish league titles had so nine times only. This will be the second time Maccabi faces HJK as the previous double headed tie was played in the 2004/05 Champions league qualifying campaign. Maccabi beat the Finns 1-0 on aggregate to reach the Champions League group stage for the first time in the club’s history.
HJK began their European campaign this season in the Champions League but were eliminated in the second round by Malmo FF. The Europa League third qualifying round saw HJK knockout Neftchi Baku of Azerbaijan (5-2 on aggregate) to reach the Playoffs before suffering a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Turkish giants Fenerbahce. Having dropped directly to the Conference League, HJK began the group stage with a 2-0 defeat at home to LASK on MD1 followed by a 4-2 victory over Alashkert in Armenia.
Similar to most European countries, the Finnish league is well underway having played 24 league rounds as HJK are currently second in the table trailing Kuopion Palloseura (Kups) by 3 points. HJK recently suffered a dip in form as a run of four winless matches and three successive league defeats saw them concede a four point lead at the top to keep the title race wide open. Against Maccabi however, HJK will arrive on the back of a 3-2 victory over Ilves that ended their winless run.
Artificial pitch once again
The Bolt Arena or Helsinki Football stadium is a compact ground which a capacity of 10,770 spectators that features an artificial surface. This will be the second time this season Maccabi will play on an artificial pitch following the 2-1 victory in Kazakhstan over Shakhtar Karagandy that was played at Astana. In terms of weather conditions, the close to zero welcoming Maccabi received upon their arrival to Helsinki on Tuesday night, will see the temperatures rise to around 11 with heavy rain expected.
Beware of the Riski brothers
HJK are coached by 38-year-old Toni Koskela, a former Finnish midfielder who played mostly in Scandinavia but also had short spells at Cardiff City and in Illisiakos of Greece. He was appointed as HJK Head Coach in 2019 after roles as Youth Team Coach and first team Assistant coach. In terms of the squad, two important and dangerous players upfront are the Riski brothers Riku (32) and Roope (30) with the former playing mostly on the wing while the latter is HJK’s leading goalscorer who is also a member of the Finland national team. Last season Roope scored 16 goals in 20 league matches yet this campaign he scored only 4 goals in 21, yet against Alashkert both brothers bagged a goal each in HJK’s 4-2 victory in Armenia.
Filip Valencic, a 29-year-old attacking midfielder who can also play as a winger is one of Koskela’s choices with 27-year-old Brazilian Jair Tavares da Silva occupying the anchorman role. Veteran midfielder, Tim Sparv is a household name in Finnish football as the 34-year-old defensive midfielder represented his country 84 times and featured for clubs such as Southampton, Halmstad, Groningen, Greuther Furth, Midtjylland and Larissa before returning to HJK in 2021. David Browne is another player to watch as the Papua New Guinea 25-year-old international scored four goals for HJK this season.