Back on 16 September 1998, Mika Lehkosuo had the honour of leading HJK Helsinki onto the pitch at the PSV Stadion in Eindhoven for the first UEFA Champions League group stage game featuring a Finnish team.
Now 44, the 17-times-capped former midfielder is attempting to bring a new generation of HJK players into Europe's top club competition. HJK's 1998/99 campaign remains the only one by a local side in the UEFA Champions League proper, but with the 26-time national champions having won the last five Veikkausliiga titles, the hope in Helsinki is that another historic breakthrough may be imminent.
Lehkosuo's playing success with HJK in 1998 earned him a move to Italian outfit AC Perugia, yet it never quite worked out, and while he returned home to captain HJK once more, his playing career was ultimately to be cut short by injury. However, he reinvented himself as a coach – initially in HJK's youth department – before a fruitful spell at FC Honka Espoo, the club he left earlier this year. Subsequently, his HJK connections ensured he was not out of work for long.
After dismissing Sixten Boström in the early stages of the 2014 season, HJK brought in Lehkosuo as his replacement – a natural choice, not least since the team's chief executive is Aki Riihilahti, another player who figured in that famous match in Eindhoven in 1998. A comfortable 3-0 win against FC Haka in the Finnish Cup in late April marked the start of Lehkosuo's senior coaching career with the club, and he has yet to lose in 21 games, with his side leading the Finnish rankings and through to the last four of the domestic cup, as well as continuing their quest for European glory.
However, perhaps his greatest challenge yet awaits Lehkosuo in Wednesday's UEFA Champions League third qualifying round second leg. At home to APOEL FC last week, his charges took a 2-0 half-time lead only for the dismissal of striker Macoumba Kandji early in the second half to let the visitors back into the tie, earning a 2-2 draw. "Everything was under control until the red card," the coach reflected. "I am disappointed with the result after a very good first half, but 2-2 means we still have a chance in Cyprus."
If they are to reach the play-offs, HJK must make their experience pay. The likes of Teemu Tainio, Markus Heikkinen and Veli Lampi have played plenty of times for Finland as well as representing some top foreign clubs. Their most famous name may be forward Mikael Forssell. Now 33, the former Chelsea FC man was on the bench for that 2-1 loss at PSV Eindhoven all those years ago. If his then captain and now coach can work a bit more magic, his UEFA Champions League group stage career may not quite be over.
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