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HJK stirred by finest hour

As HJK Helsinki visit FK Ekranas, their only group-stage appearance will provide inspiration for coach Antti Muurinen as he looks to repeat the feat 12 years on, saying: "We thought no challenge was too great."

Aki Riihilahti challenges Kaiserslautern's Andreas Reinke for the ball during a 0-0 draw in HJK's 1998/99 group stage campaign
Aki Riihilahti challenges Kaiserslautern's Andreas Reinke for the ball during a 0-0 draw in HJK's 1998/99 group stage campaign ©AFP

Antti Muurinen is the only coach to have led a Finnish team to the UEFA Champions League group stage, taking HJK Helsinki there 12 years ago. Now back at the helm of the Klubi, he is aiming to repeat the feat as they begin their latest campaign at FK Ekranas on Wednesday evening.

Muurinen is one of Finland's most heralded coaches. The 56-year-old was in charge of the national team from 2000 to 2005 and has led both FC Kuusysi and HJK to the Finnish title twice. Probably his greatest achievement, however, is guiding HJK to the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League group stage. "We had a great team back then and our confidence was really high," recalls Muurinen, who returned to HJK in 2007. "We thought no challenge was too great. It really was a dream come true."

HJK overcame FC Yerevan and FC Metz in qualifying that year to reach the group stage. There, a side boasting Shefki Kuqi, Hannu Tihinen, a 17-year-old Mikael Forssell and Aki Riihilahti acquitted themselves well against former European champions PSV Eindhoven and then German titleholders 1. FC Kaiserslautern.

HJK drew twice, but the unquestionable highlight was victory against Portugal's SL Benfica in Helsinki. "The home games in particular were something everyone will remember forever," Muurinen said. "The crowd was really behind us and during the 2-0 win against Benfica the atmosphere was probably better than at any time before or since in Finland at club level."

As HJK fans look back at that campaign with fond memories, Muurinen knows just how hard it will be emulate that success. "As Finland's [UEFA coefficient] ranking is quite low we will face tough opponents from the start, but if you take a look at the clubs in qualifying there are no easy opponents. We will certainly not be afraid. It's a tough task, but we have a dream."

Muurinen is not the only seasoned campaigner looking ahead to another crack at the UEFA Champions League. Riihilahti left after that memorable 1998/99 campaign and having spent a decade abroad at Vålerenga IF, Crystal Palace FC, Kaiserslautern and Djurgårdens IF, returned midway through last season to help HJK win their 22nd title. The midfielder, 33, is the sole survivor of the previous group-stage campaign; his experience could be crucial if the Finnish champions are to get there again.

One key similarity between the current HJK squad and their illustrious predecessors is Muurinen's willingness to give youth a chance. Tihinen, Riihilahti and Kuqi were at the start of their careers 12 years ago. This time Riihilahti will provide support for a new generation: centre-halves Juhani Ojala and Valtteri Moren, full-back Mikko Sumusalo and midfielder Johannes Westö are all 20 or under.

HJK join the competition in the second qualifying round with their first-leg visit to Ekranas of Lithuania on Wednesday. Muurinen is ready to make the most of the chance. "Champions League qualifying is always a big opportunity, something you dream of," he said. "The important thing is to believe in yourself. If you feel you won't make it, that will be the end of it." For HJK this could be just the start.