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Former Aberdeen striker Mixu Paatelainen gives the lowdown on HJK Helsinki

Former Don believes high-tempo tactic can pay off for Aberdeen against Finnish champions in the Europa Conference League.

Topi Keskinen of HJK celebrates scoring against Molde FK
Topi Keskinen of HJK celebrates scoring against Molde FK in July. Image: Shutterstock.

Former Aberdeen striker Mixu Paatelainen believes a Scottish approach to Europe is what the Dons need to adopt when they face HJK Helsinki in the Conference League on Thursday.

The Dons welcome the Finnish champions to Pittodrie for the second game of the group stage with both teams hoping to get off the mark after matchday one defeats.

Aberdeen lost 2-1 at Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany in their opener while HJK Helsinki were beaten 3-2 at home by Greek side PAOK in their fixture.

Former Finnish international striker and manager Paatelainen, who played for the Dons between 1992 and 1994, insists approaching the game as a Scottish Premiership style match is key to Aberdeen’s hopes of victory.

He said: “It is not going to be easy for Aberdeen. Helsinki are an experienced team and are capable.

“It will be interesting as I know if Aberdeen play a typical Scottish, high-tempo and aggressive game, that can be difficult for HJK Helsinki as they are more used to playing a continental style.

“But having said that, Aberdeen have to be careful not to be caught on the counter.”

HJK Helsinki will try to hit the Dons on the break

Helsinki utilised a 3-4-3 formation in their loss to PAOK and Paatelainen expects head coach Toni Korkeakunnas to opt for a counter-attacking approach at Pittodrie.

He points to the pace out wide and the threat on the break of the Finnish side, led by the leading scorer in Finland, Bojan Radulovic, as being pivotal.

Paatelainen said: “Up front they have goalscorers like Bojan Radulovic, their main striker, and Roope Riski who is very fast.

“I should also mention the Japanese player Atomu Tanaka. He does not start games so much these days but he is another very experienced and capable player off the bench.

Bojan Radulovic of HJK Helsinki running with his arms outstretched
Bojan Radulovic of HJK is the club’s leading scorer this season. Image: Shutterstock

“Their wide player Santeri Hostikka is a current international as is Anthony Olusanya. He is also fast and strong.

“They have good young players too. Topi Keskinen is a very tricky and direct and likes to go past a player.

“They have good types of players to play different types of football. If Radulovic plays, he is more a classic centre forward and is very good in the box.

“If they want to play a counter-attacking game, which I think they will do at Pittodrie, they will use players like Hostikka and Keskinen.

“They’ll want their fast guys on the pitch who are suitable for a counter attack.”

Wealth of experience in the Finnish champions’ squad

It is clear from a look through the Helsinki squad that they have several experienced campaigners in their ranks.

A squad packed full of current and former internationals has made the club champions of Finland for the past three years and put them within touching distance of a fourth league title.

HJK Helsinki's players Joona Toivio, goalkeeper Jesse Ost and Jukka Raitala on the pitch, who will be facing Aberdeen
HJK’s players Joona Toivio, goalkeeper Jesse Ost and Jukka Raitala. Image: SNS

Paatelainen said: “In terms of their squad they have a good mix between experienced players who have been abroad for 10 years and played in Serie A, Holland or Germany, and younger players who are part of the national team.

“They have two very experienced goalkeepers in Niki Maenpaa and Jesse Ost. Niki has played most of his career in Holland and Italy while Jesse is younger but they can both play.

“They have defenders like the two 35-year-olds Jukka Raitala and Joono Toivio in defence who are very experienced in Europe. Valterri Moren at 32 also brings experience to the backline.

“In midfield there is Perparim Hetemaj. He is 36 but has a wealth of experience.

“He spent more than a decade in Italy with Brescia, Chievo, Benevento and Reggina before returning to HJK, his first club, last year.”

Helsinki the strongest team in Finland

Helsinki’s domestic dominance and regular involvement in Europe has given them the financial muscle to take control of the Veikkausliiga in their homeland.

Having established themselves as the strongest team in the country, Paatelainen says the club is now able to recruit from a significant position of strength.

Topi Keskinen of HJK Helsinki in action
Topi Keskinen of HJK in action during the Conference League play-off against Farul Constanta. Image: Shutterstock

He said: “HJK Helsinki is a strong team. They have been very successful domestically winning almost every year.

“On some occasions another club sneaks in but they are strong.

“The reason for that is because they have done reasonably well in Europe, qualifying for the Europa League and Conference League regularly.

“The Champions League is a level above them but European competition means they have accumulated revenue.

“The money they have means they can acquire ex and current national team players in Finland.

“Players who have been abroad and returned to Finland go to Helsinki because they have the best resources and they play in Europe. Players want to be part of that.”

Korkeakunnas has put HJK back on track

The desire to remain the best team in Finland resulted in coach Toni Koskela, who led the club to three consecutive league titles, being dismissed in the summer with the club languishing in third place in the division.

His assistant Korkeakunnas was placed in charge for the rest of the season and has quickly re-established the club’s place at the top of the division.

HJK will be crowned league champions on Sunday if they avoid defeat at VPS in their penultimate league game of the season.

Paatelainen is not surprised at seeing Korkeakunnas steady the ship.

HJK Helsinki's coach Toni Korkeakunnas at the side of the pitch
Helsinki’s coach Toni Korkeakunnas during HJK’s Conference League opener against PAOK. Image: Shutterstock

He said: “Korkeakunnas has been more an assistant recently but he has been a head coach in the Finnish league for many years.

“He is also one of the assistants in the national team so he is used to international football.

“Korkeakunnas was assistant to Koskela when he was sacked in the summer and is in charge for the rest of the season. The club is in very capable hands with him in charge, that’s for sure.”

Helsinki will be well rested for Pittodrie visit

One advantage Helsinki do have over the Dons is a whole week to prepare for Thursday’s game.

The Finnish FA try to help their clubs in Europe by clearing the domestic calendar and Paatelainen will be curious to see if it helps their cause against the Dons.

However, with the Finnish domestic season due to end on October 21 Paatelainen fears the later games in the Conference League could prove more challenging for HJK.

Former Don Mixu Paatelainen.
Former Don Mixu Paatelainen.

He said: “Helsinki played last Wednesday so they have had a full week to prepare for Aberdeen.

“That’s what they do in Finland. When clubs play in Europe the league wants to give clubs a free weekend if they can to prepare for the midweek European fixtures.

“It’s surprising not every country does that as it has a big effect on the team and the coefficient for the country.

“An extra couple of days might do the trick for a team nursing niggling injuries.

“From my own career as a player and manager sometimes when you play a hectic fixture list it is good to be in the rhythm of playing all the time every three days.

“If that goes more than two weeks it starts to hit your squad but it can work for you too.

I don’t know big an advantage it is but Helsinki will be fresh for this game.”

Lack of action could be a factor later in the tournament

Helsinki’s advantage of having a week to prepare for the tie could be a significant issue later in the tournament, however.

Paatelainen added: “The bigger challenge they will have is in the second half of the Conference League group stage when Helsinki’s domestic season is finished.

“The season starts in late March and Helsinki have two games left, one this weekend and one after the international break.

“It’s been a long summer but they play less matches in Finland than in Scotland.

“Helsinki’s domestic season ends on October 21.

“They travel to play Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany in the third game of the competition at the end of this month and it will be six weeks of no domestic football by the time Aberdeen visit Helsinki at the end of November.”