Glentoran FC and HJK Helsinki will go into next week's UEFA Champions League first qualifying round second-leg tie in Finland with everything to play for after tonight's scoreless draw at the Oval in Belfast.
A share of the spoils probably represented a fair dividend for both sides after a match in which both teams initially struggled to find any rhythm. However a scrappy opening period, in which no one managed a shot on target, was followed by a livelier second half.
The home side had the best of the opening exchanges as their defence, led expertly by Gary Smyth, coped well with the aerial prowess of the Finns, notably towering striker Mika Kottila. Despite Glentoran's early pressure it was HJK who had the first clear-cut chance on eleven minutes when a slip by Smyth let in midfield player Toni Kallio, only for him to panic and miss the target.
Armour causes problems
Glentoran suffered a blow on 17 minutes when defender Chris Walker was taken off after an accidental clash of heads with Kottila. However, his replacement, forward Darren Armour, caused significant problems for the visitors.
The hosts picked up the pace in the second half but HJK always appeared dangerous on the break. Nevertheless, within the first ten minutes of the restart Glentoran had a succession of good chances to score, notably on 48 minutes when Armour's looping header from a Kevin Keegan cross missed the target.
Glentoran now had their tails up but the visiting defence was standing tall and HJK almost grabbed a goal on the hour mark when Elliott Morris was forced into a fine save at his near post from a Juho Mäkelä shot.
A rash of substitutions followed as both sides tried a final roll of the dice. Aarno Turpeinen missed a clear header on 71 minutes for HJK and six minutes later substitute László Fekete shot tamely just as the goal beckoned.
Morris to the rescue again
However, on 86 minutes the visitors almost snatched a crucial away goal when a cross-shot from substitute Alexei Eremenko Jr almost deceived Morris, who was forced to backtrack and knock the ball over the crossbar. After tonight's closely-fought game, both teams will enter the return feeling they have every chance of succeeding in securing a showdown against MTK Hungária FC.
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