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Wörthersee Stadium, Klagenfurt – December 9, 2021

LASK signed off their European year in fine style on the final UEFA Europa Conference League match day of 2021. A makeshift eleven needed only a few minutes to get up to speed, before clinical goals from Husein Balic, Keito Nakamura and Andreas Gruber led the Black & Whites to a comfortable win against HJK Helsinki.

LASK went into match day six in an enviable position having already secured top spot in Group A, thanks to a three point advantage and a better head to head record against second placed Maccabi Tel Aviv. The visitors in Klagenfurt on Thursday though, were record Finnish champions HJK, who would not have been deterred one bit by the sub zero temperatures and thick snow in the Carinthian capital. With qualification out of reach for the guests, this game was about going out on a high and earning a third win of the campaign, whereas for the Austrians the aim was to continue a fine run of seven wins and two draws from nine European matches played so far this season.

The Linzers had to make do without some significant firepower up front, with Mamoudou Karamoko, Alexander Schmidt, Marco Raguz and Christoph Monschein all injured, and Marvin Potzmann missing out through suspension. Coach Andi Wieland opted to make several changes to the starting XI with the group win in the bag, so veteran keeper Thomas Gebauer got to lead the team out as captain. It was a 3-4-3 line-up, with Hyon-Seok Hong, Husein Balic and Andreas Gruber comprising the front three, hunting for goals against HJK’s 4-3-3 formation.

Whilst the Finnish team have only played a handful of games since winning their 31st national title in October, they managed to start well as midfielder Santeri Hostika was played free on the left of the area, before home keeper Gebauer immediately made his presence felt with a commanding block after just six minutes. Despite LASK growing into the game steadily, before a quarter of an hour had been played the next big chance fell to the visitors, who saw centre forward Roope Riski head wide from inside the area when he really should have scored.

Soon after, Balic’s snapshot sailed just over the top as the hosts’ new look team began to find some cohesion, but HJK continued to threaten with direct balls forward. An incisive through pass from James Holland carved through the Finnish defence for the first time, but although Balic was there again, his angle was too tight to score. With a little over half an hour on the clock, once more LASK’s number 14 was the danger man, but his side-footed finish rattled the crossbar and sent snow tumbling into the goalmouth, rather than the ball itself.

By the latter stages of the half the home side were fully in the ascendency. Ten minutes before the break, a long shot from Gruber was parried and Hong’s rebound header was somehow kept out by the keeper’s gloves, but just as HJK began to look lively again, Balic finally found the back of the net. He dropped a shoulder to sidestep the defence on the edge of the area, and fired home a low shot for 1-0 with less than five minutes to play, giving LASK a precious lead at the interval.

Atomu Tanaka had been Helsinki’s hero in an earlier Group A win, and his volley ten minutes after the restart got the action going again despite ending up just wide of Gebauer’s goal, before substitutions began to impact the game for both sides. The most impressive arrival was LASK’s Keito Nakamura, who rewarded the coach for bringing him on by slamming home from Gruber’s low ball across the box and doubling the advantage after 63 minutes.

The group leaders remained firmly in control as the game went on, yet rather than sitting back to hold onto their record of conceding the fewest goals of any European participant (1), they pushed on and soon got their reward at the other end of the pitch. Sascha Horvath came on in the 77th minute, and it took him just four minutes until he chipped a delightful cross into the middle for Gruber to nod down and in for 3-0. With the deserved gloss added to the score line the result was confirmed, and the Black & Whites could celebrate the ideal ending to a near perfect Conference League group stage campaign.

With the final whistle piped into the ice cold Klagenfurt air, LASK can now look forward to European action in the new year, and with passage to the Last 16 already sealed they will eagerly anticipate a draw that holds plenty of potential glamour ties. Given their superb defensive record, they won’t see the need to be particularly fearful of any opponents in the competition either.

By Tom Middler from The Other Bundesliga (@OtherBundesliga)

The line-ups:

LASK: Gebauer ©; Luckeneder, Maresic, Letard (Wiesinger 59’); Renner; Michorl, Holland (Grgic 46’), Flecker (Horvath 77’); Hong (Nakamura 46’), Balic (Goiginger 59’), Gruber

Subs: Schlager, Polster, Wiesinger, Goiginger, Horvath, Grgic, Boller, Nakamura

Yellow cards: Michorl 53’, Gruber 58’,

Goals: Balic 41’, Nakamura 63’, Gruber 81’

HJK Helsinki: Keto; Kouassivi-Benissan (Peltola 88’), Halsti, Tenho ©, Moren; Hostikka (Riku Riski 88’), Lingman, Tanaka (Vaananen 63’); Olusanya, Roope Riski (Valencic 77’), Browne (Murillo 88’)

Subs:Tannander, Henriksson, Niemela, Djalo, Riku Riski, Murillo, Nkeng, Vaananen, Valencic, Anini Jr., Peltola, Yli-Kokko

Yellow cards: Halsti 7’, Tenho 20’, Kouassivi-Benissan 67’