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HJK flying high ahead of European duty

Top of the Veikkausliiga by a distance and through to the Finnish Cup final, HJK Helsinki are in scintillating form ahead of their opening UEFA Champions League assignment.

HJK have ambitions beyond the domestic scene this season
HJK have ambitions beyond the domestic scene this season ©Jussi Eskola

It is little surprise to see HJK Helsinki – winners of the last two Finnish First Division championships – leading the way 15 games into the 2011 campaign. The manner of their assault on the summit, though, has been simply stunning.

Defeated 2-0 by TPS Turku on the season's opening day in early May, the titleholders bounced back with four straight victories before suffering another setback, a 2-0 loss at IFK Mariehamn. Since then, however, they have been flawless, racking up nine consecutive wins to establish a ten-point gap at the top.

The recipe for success is one concocted by coach Antti Muurinen, who stated before the campaign began that he intended the capital outfit to challenge on three fronts. "The championship, of course, and the cup, but also we really want to go as far as we can on the continent," he said. Evidently riding high in the Veikkausliiga and already through to September's Suomen Cup final, HJK have just one more aim to cross off the list.

Having safely negotiated Friday's game against second-placed FC Inter Turku, HJK can now turn their attentions to the first leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie against Bangor City FC. They travel to Rhyl, in Wales, for Wednesday's fixture with every reason to be confident.

Muurinen's charges have scored 35 goals and conceded only seven during their nine-match winning streak, including a 6-0 revenge triumph over first-day conquerors TPS. With the luxury of relative strength in depth, Muurinen has shuffled his pack accordingly, particularly rotating strikers Berat Sadik, Teemu Pukki and Akseli Pelvas when required.

The involvement of venerable forward Jari Litmanen and experienced midfielder Aki Riihilahti has so far been curtailed by injury, yet both are expected to provide options as the season progresses.

At the other end of his career is 22-year-old centre-back Juhani Ojala, who made his breakthrough last term and is now a key part of HJK's back four. "We are able to play with a high tempo for 90 minutes and that means we are a strong team," he said. "We can maintain our level on the pitch and the bench always provides extra power. A good team does not lose concentration, it stays focused until the end."