UEFA EUROPA CONFERENCE LEAGUE MATCHDAY 1 – HJK HELSINKI 0-2 LASK
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Despite several notable absences in the defensive department, LASK came out on top at the Bolt Arena in Finland as they claimed a 2-0 away win over HJK Helsinki in their opening group game of the UEFA Europa Conference League. Dario Maresic slotted home the rebound from a Peter Michorl free-kick on the 15-minute mark, but the Black & Whites then let their early control of the game slip and endured several close shaves before substitute Christoph Monschein wrapped up the points with a curling strike in the 89th minute.
LASK’s opening group game came midway through an eventful week in which Dominik Thalhammer was relieved of his role as head coach and sporting director following a poor run of results. His replacement is former assistant Andreas Wieland, who takes charge on an interim basis until the winter break. First up for new boss Wieland was a tricky trip to face record Finnish champions HJK Helsinki, who are currently six points clear at the summit with only three games of the regular season to go. The visitors lined up in their usual 3-4-3 formation with two changes from the team that faced Austria Vienna (Dario Maresic and Mamoudou Karamoko in; Husein Balić and Sascha Horvath out), while the hosts – the lowest-ranked team in a group that also includes Alashkert of Armenia and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv – opted for a 4-3-3 with Roope Riski leading the line in the absence of veteran forward Atomu Tanaka.
The Linzers, clad in their trademark pink away kits, carved open their first half-chances of the game around the 10-minute mark, with Karamoko twice firing snapshots at goal. The latter earned his side a corner – but HJK cleared it to safety and launched a quick counter that was brought to a premature conclusion by Florian Flecker, whose tactical foul deservedly earned him a yellow card and a talking-to from the referee.
As the quarter-hour mark approached, the impressive Karamoko was upended by Miro Tenho on the edge of the box as he attempted to play a one-two with Hyunseok Hong. The upshot was a free-kick in an extremely dangerous position for the visitors, who took full advantage. Set-piece specialist Michorl stepped up to take it and, though his shot lacked placement and was parried by Hugo Keto in the HJK goal, centre-back Maresic was on hand to slot home the rebound and give the travelling fans cause for celebration. Marvin Potzmann had a chance to double the advantage five minutes later but drove the ball wide of the near post from inside the box. Other opportunities to extend the lead may have materialised if free-flowing football had not been so hampered by the slippery artificial turf at the Bolt Arena.
The Fins offered little in the way of an attacking threat until just shy of the half-hour mark, when Santeri Hostikka received the ball on the left of the box and cut inside before drawing an excellent save from Alexander Schlager down at his near post. That, though, was a rare moment of danger for LASK in the first half. Another came several minutes later when Jair latched onto a through-ball – but the linesman made the right call by flagging for offside. Just as well, as there is no VAR in this competition until the knockout stages.
Both sides took turns in threatening the other’s goal in the opening stages of the second half, with Schlager doing well to beat away a powerful effort from Roope Riski before Holland blasted over the crossbar at the other end. With the hosts sensing their chance to get back into the game, Filip Valencic then had a strike from close range blocked by Jan Boller and Felix Luckeneder intervened to deny Jair on the follow-up. Wieland reacted by replacing Karamoko and Holland with Lukas Grgic and Monschein.
The double change appeared to have the desired impact and somewhat stemmed the tide of HJK pressure, but LASK rarely threatened either and did not deserve the penalty they appealed for following a challenge between Flecker and Keto in the home side’s box midway through the second period. Another double switch soon followed, with Maresic and Goiginger withdrawn and Rene Renner and Balić introduced. Jair was booked with 10 minutes to go for a dive, before Monschein dragged an effort wide of the far post at the other end.
Though far from their best European performance when contrasted with the numerous continental highlights the club has enjoyed in the past few years, LASK made up for their lack of clear-cut chances with the kind of resolute performance that has at times been missing in the Bundesliga in recent weeks. That, combined with Monschein’s lovely curling strike to double the advantage with a minute to go, ultimately saw LASK over the line as they claimed all three points in their first-ever Conference League game and went second in Group A after Maccabi Tel Aviv’s 4-1 thrashing of Alashkert in the group’s other game. Next up for the Linzers is a trip to Austria Klagenfurt in the league on Sunday.
By Lee Wingate from The Other Bundesliga (@OtherBundesliga)
HJK Helsinki: Keto; Moren, Tenho, O‘Shaughnessy, Murillo (Olusanya 86’); Väänänen (Riku Riski 46’), Jair, Lingman; Valencic, Roope Riski, Hostikka (Browne 70’)
Subs: Tånnander, Djalo, Dahlström, Nkeng, Sparv, Peltola, Niemelä
LASK: Schlager; Boller, Maresic (Renner 79‘), Luckeneder; Flecker, Holland (Grgic 64‘), Michorl, Potzmann; Hong (Horvath 55‘), Karamoko (Monschein 64‘), Goiginger (Balić 79‘)
Subs: Gebauer, Polster, Nakamura
Goal: Maresic (15‘), Monschein (89‘)