HJK Helsinki's 1998/99 UEFA Champions League group stage campaign is unique in Finnish football – and the capital club look like making a similar breakthrough in the UEFA Europa League as they defend a 2-0 play-off lead at FC Schalke 04 on Thursday.
The draw seemed to be as tough as they come for HJK against last season's UEFA Champions League semi-finalists but two goals from Teemu Pukki in the home first leg suggested otherwise. But then providing a link to 13 years ago is Antti Muurinen, coach when HJK beat FC Metz to reach a group stage where they gained four points against SL Benfica, and in charge again since 2007 with two league titles under his belt.
This tie is only at half-time, but certainly that first result was one of the greatest in the club's history," Muurinen said. "The atmosphere was excellent and every player played above their usual level. It will be a tough challenge for us in the second leg. Two goals scored and none conceded – that is good for us, but Schalke remain the favourites in this tie."
Muurinen's side, who were eliminated in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round by GNK Dinamo Zagreb, kept their domestic form up on Sunday with a 5-0 defeat of RoPS Rovaniemi to remain comfortably clear at the summit. "We had Thursday in mind and the most important thing was just to take the three points," Muurinen said. "At home against Schalke we defended well, but we cannot just defend in Gelsenkirchen. That would be suicide."
Last week's hero Puuki, 21, originally left HJK for Sevilla FC as a teenager but the striker returned last summer to excellent effect. "The first goal must have been the most important of my career so far," he said last Thursday's opener. "We had learned from the home game against Dinamo Zagreb and were able to keep a clean sheet after getting the opening goal."
Pukki was only eight when HJK played in the UEFA Champions League, but midfielder Aki Riihilahti was part of the team then as now, having returned in 2009 after a decade away. "We had scouted Schalke well and knew how they would play," the 34-year-old said. "
We are still only halfway there and the more difficult part is ahead. We have to keep calm, but we may also be confident after the result in the first leg."
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