HJK reached its minimum goal and secured a significant jackpot in its account.

    Jukka Raitala (second on the right) and the rest of the HJK team celebrated for a long time with the supporters to get to Europe. Matti Raivio / AOP

    Turning 34 in the fall Jukka Raitala has never played in the group stage of a European club tournament. This season, however, there will be a change.

    The defender, who moved to HJK for this season, played full minutes again in the club’s basement, as the team progressed to the final stage of the Europa League qualifiers. A place in the group stage of the Conference League was already secured when Maribor from Slovenia was beaten by HJK.

    In the dressing room of the blue and white shirts, the caps of sparkling drinks were knocked on the ceiling on Thursday evening.

    – Great! The minimum goal was to go to Europe. You can enjoy it now, Raitala expressed the mood after the 1–0 home win.

    At the beginning of the last decade, in the Dutch SC Heerenveen, Raitala was able to play in the qualifiers for the European games, but the group stage remained a dream then. Before returning to Finland, he played for five years in North America.

    – Of course, I’m looking forward to those games now. A big thank you goes to our gang for playing so well in these qualifiers.

    The joint goals went to HJK 3–0. Just for reaching the group stage of the Conference League, the club will receive approximately three million euros.

    A pat on the shoulder

    Lucas Lingman excellently started the only goal of the match against Maribor. Matti Raivio / AOP

    You can still say that one intermediate stage has been reached with the block place. However, the games will continue in a week, when the Danish Silkeborg will arrive as a guest of HJK.

    Its league season has started strongly. Silkeborg has won three of the four matches and is second in the table.

    – Silkeborg is of course the pre-favorite for the pair of matches. We now reached our minimum goal, but at the same time we have to remember that the competition in Europe is really tough. In the group stages, there are not many countries or clubs that run things with as few resources as we do. So you have to remember the context and the value of the achievement, head coach Toni Koskela said.

    Koskela took HJK to Europe for the second season in a row. Last year, the Club was able to play in the Conference League.

    – Of course, this achievement makes me feel good too. In this profession, moments change quickly. Successes must be enjoyed. Maybe now you can give yourself a small pat on the back, Koskela grinned at his achievement.

    No other Finnish coach has guided his team to the group stage twice in a row.

    Possession of the ball

    However, Koskela has not been spared from criticism, just like no other HJK team this season.

    In the Veikkausliiga, it has dropped points, even though the team is filled with big-name players. Most recently, last Sunday, HJK drew 1–1 with AC Oulu.

    – It was one example of a match that we didn’t know how to put in a package in good time. We haven’t been able to score 2–0 or 3–0 goals that “kill” games, Raitala reflected.

    There was also room for improvement from Thursday. Maribor pressed high and tried to attack, creating a man advantage in the final third.

    Santeri Hostikka completed his second goal of the season in an HJK shirt. That hit broke Maribor’s spine. Matti Raivio / AOP

    To be honest, however, it did not succeed very well in that, for which HJK can also congratulate itself.

    – We didn’t really get our ball game rolling. Of course, we defended with a fairly low block, and there was no major problem with that. However, you should be able to keep the ball better in these games.

    – I also lost the ball carelessly, which created a dangerous situation for us.

    Lingman shines

    It seems like the best hit of HJK’s summer transfer window so far Lucas Lingman. The midfielder, who rose to fame, unexpectedly arrived on loan to his old club, although he was responsible for the early season in Helsingborg of the Swedish Allsvenskan.

    – He is exactly the kind of player that is needed in such games to bring confidence on the ball and the courage to challenge and pass, praised Raitala.

    Thursday’s Maribor match was Lingman’s third this season in the shirt of the Helsinki team. The only goal of the match came from his insight.

    Lingman got the ball from a sideline throw into the middle zone. A quick change of rhythm threw Maribor’s defense into disarray. Lingman found Santeri Hostikan completely alone from the border of the box. Hostikka shook with force in the back lower corner.

    Lingman can be a turning point for HJK’s season.