By Kenny Archer
A solitary goal from Mika Kottila was enough to give HJK Helsinki a slender victory against Linfield FC in Belfast tonight.
The giant Finnish international struck with 14 minutes remaining of this first-leg fixture, meaning his side will feel they have every chance of completing the job next Wednesday and progressing to face Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC in the second qualifying round. The defeat also means Linfield have lost an unbeaten home record in European competition stretching back to a 1-0 reverse at the hands of FC Shakhtar Donetsk in the 1995/96 campaign.
Linfield were unlucky not to take the lead just after the hour mark when a free-kick was rolled to centre-back Andrew Hunter and his right-foot shot came back off the right-hand post and flew across the face of goal. Earlier, lively Linfield striker Davy Larmour had seen his shot saved by the legs of Helsinki goalkeeper Andras Vilnrotter in the second minute of the second half.
Those two efforts summed up how the second period was an improvement on a poor first half, in which the best chance came after 20 minutes, created by the persistence of Larmour. As Vilnrotter hesitated, Larmour nipped in and robbed him. However, running out of space, Larmour cut the ball back to fellow forward Andy Crawford, but his delayed shot was charged down by HJK defender Joakim Jensen.
HJK had enjoyed plenty of possession but it was not until ten minutes before the break that they really turned that into a threat when William Hunter was forced to cut out a dangerous cross from Alexei Eremenko. The Finnish playmaker then spurned his side's best opportunity of the first period, blazing the ball over the bar from a cut-back by right midfielder Aarno Turpeinen in the 44th minute.
Helsinki came to life after Hunter's 62nd-minute shot against the post. Kottila volleyed one opportunity wide the next minute, then scuffed a low shot at the goalkeeper five minutes later - but he eventually found the winner. Linfield goalkeeper Alan Mannus did well to block a shot on goal from Eremenko but the 29-year-old Kottila was on hand to convert from close range.