FC Barcelona’s preseason schedule continues this Saturday with a trip up north to face HJK Helsinki. It will be a tougher test than it might look on paper, because while Barça are still preparing for the new season, the Finnish Veikkausliiga, as well as two national cup competitions, have been under way since April.
HJK have also already started their European campaign. After beating Macedonia’s Rabotnički in the second qualifying round of the Champions League, they have just been beaten 4-2 on aggregate by APOEL Nicosia of Cyprus to go out of the competition, although all hope is not lost for they’ll now go into the draw for the playoff round of the Europa League, with the chance of progressing into the group stage.
September 16, 1998, was a red letter day for HJK. Mika Lehkosou, still a player at the time, led the team out against PSV Eindhoven for its first ever game in the Champions League group stage. Now 44 and with 17 international caps behind him, he’s back as manager. And he’s only lost one of the 22 games played so far, the 2-0 defeat to APOEL). At home, HJK are into both cup semi-finals and are league leaders.
They’re looking to win the domestic championship for the sixth year in succession, and 26th time in total. And with 48 points after 22 games they already have a ten-point lead on second placed FC Lahti. They’ve also won 11 Finnish Cups and 3 Finnish League Cups, as well as being the only side from the country to ever compete in the Champions League group stages. In 1998, they finished bottom of their group but memorably took four points off Benfica and one off Kaiserslautern.
Mikael Forssell, who also played for Chelsea, was in the team back then, and has since returned to his former club. But the side also features the likes of Teemu Tainio, Markus Heikkinen and Veli Lampi, who all have plenty of international experience for Finland and in foreign leagues. The young promises include Nikolai Alho and Robin Lod, and the foreign imports include Gideon Baah (Ghana) and Mac Kandji (Senegal).