FC Haka hope a win against Vålerenga IF tonight can propel them toward the group stage.
By Mikael Erävuori
A Freddy dos Santos penalty may have handed FC Haka a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie against Vålerenga IF in Norway, but with the home leg approaching, hopes remain high in the Finnish side's home town of Valkeakoski.
"We played well, giving Vålerenga very few chances and creating some ourselves," said coach Olli Huttunen. "However, we know now that we can beat Vålerenga at home. Being 1-0 down is not that much and we have a real chance to qualify for the next round."
The Finnish champions' centre-back Juha Pasoja could only agree. "I think Vålerenga were a little bit surprised especially in the first half," he said. "It wasn't so easy as they perhaps thought. It's a pity about the goal, but we will have a good chance as we play the second leg at home."
Founded back in 1934 in a town of just 20,000 inhabitants, not too far from Tampere, Haka have long been a thorn in the side of Finland's biggest clubs, taking the title nine times. They have also been no slouches in Europe, reaching the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup quarter-finals back in 1983/84.
In the Champions League this season, they maintained their record of never being beaten in the first qualifying round as they overcame Armenia's FC Pyunik, but the group stage remains unknown territory. Haka's capital city rivals HJK Helsinki remain the only Finnish side to have competed at that level.
A third qualifying round tie against Club Brugge KV awaits the winner of Haka's encounter with Vålerenga. Huttunen said: "It would be great to make it to the third qualifying round. Everything is possible after that, but realistically we wouldn't be too disappointed if we failed to reach the group stage."
A former Finnish international goalkeeper, and goalkeeping coach for the current Finland squad, Huttunen's Haka are perhaps unsurprisingly most renowned for their strength in defence. While Haka No1 Mikko Vilmunen remains relatively young at 24, he can count on plenty of experience in front of him.
Vålerenga can expect to face up to a defensive quartet of Juuso Kangaskorpi, Pasoja, former Barnsley FC player Janne Salli and Jarkko Okkonen tonight. All but Okkonen have won full international caps for Finland and will doubtless be a tough nut to crack on home soil.
In midfield, Haka will be without injured captain Lasse Karjalainen and suspended Jani Kauppila, which will give another defence-minded midfielder, South African Cheyne Fowler, the chance to shine, but the man that Haka hope will really thrive is striker Valeri Popovich.
At 34, the Russian is the Finnish Veikkausliiga's all-time top scorer, but his ability to provide telling balls for the players around him is a major asset for Haka. His 21-year-old strike partner Toni Lehtinen, who scored eleven league goals last season, could be the main beneficiary.
On Sunday, Haka warmed up for their European test with a goalless draw at FC Lahti in the Veikkausliiga. With Myllykosken Pallo-47 and HJK already eleven points ahead of them in the title race, 2005 may not be Haka's season in the league, but European success could yet provide some consolation.
It would be a dream coming true to play in the group stage, but it's too early to think about that now," said Huttunen. "We'll take it one step at a time and the next step is playing Vålerenga on Wednesday."