Aberdeen overcame Finnish side RoPS in 2019Europa Conference League, Group G: Aberdeen v HJK HelsinkiVenue: Pittodrie Stadium, Aberdeen Date: Thursday, 5 October Kick-off: 20:00 BSTCoverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland Extra/DAB/810MW, live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app
When chairman Dave Cormack took the Aberdeen reigns from Stewart Milne in 2019, one of his stated aims was to make them one of Europe’s top 100 clubs.
The Dons are currently 196th in Uefa’s coefficient rankings for this season, behind some clubs from the Faroe Islands, Kosovo, Gibraltar and Liechtenstein.
The only way to improve that is not just to keep qualifying for European competition but to win games once at the party. Thursday’s home tie against HJK Helsinki has to be the start of that journey for Aberdeen.
HJK – although Finnish champions in 11 of the last 14 seasons – brought in £2m less than Aberdeen last term despite lifting the league title again.
- Aberdeen v HJK preview, team news & stats
The usual talk of opposition budgets dwarfing Scottish clubs does not apply here, as it did when Aberdeen opened their Conference League campaign with a creditable 2-1 defeat away to Eintracht Frankfurt.
That brave display sparked the Dons’ season into life, with back-to-back wins against Ross County followed by the brilliant victory away to Rangers at the weekend.
So, with Barry Robson’s team finding form and with a packed Pittodrie behind them, this game is there for the taking. It is a marker for Aberdeen.
How far away are they from the club’s desired destination?
Competent HJK look to improve away record
Bojan Radulovic is likely to be HJK’s main goal threat
That is not to say Helsinki will pitch up and roll over. The Finnish side pushed PAOK in their Group G opener, eventually losing 3-2 at home to the Greek side having led in the first half.
It is the only loss in their past seven games and they have scored in each of their last 12 matches, while Aberdeen have only kept two clean sheets in the same number of games.
Spain-born Serbian striker Bojan Radulovic will provide the main threat, having scored 22 goals in 36 games this season, one of which came in that loss to PAOK.
There is also plenty of international experience in Helsinki ranks, particularly in defence. Centre-backs Joona Toivio and Jukka Raitala have well over 50 caps for Finland and played all three games at Euro 2020 as the Finns made a mark at their first major tournament.
It is also HJK’s third straight season playing in the group stages of European competition. Last season, they got one point in a Europa League group with Roma, Real Betis and Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria.
The year before, they beat Armenian side Alashkert home and away to end their Conference League section with six points. That is the type of experience few in the Aberdeen squad possess – and exactly where they want to be.
However, most of Helsinki’s success in Europe has come at home. They have lost all four of their European away games in 90 minutes this season, which includes visits to Northern Irish champions Larne, Molde of Norway, Qarabag of Azerbaijan and Romanian side Farul Constanta.
That makes it all the more important for Aberdeen to use home advantage before the trip to Finland at the end of November.
There is also the slight chance HJK will be distracted by the conclusion of their league campaign. On Sunday, they face VPS in their penultimate league match and need just a point to clinch a fourth straight title.
Helsinki will be tough opposition. But they do not have the attacking potency Swedish champions Hacken had when they rocked up at Pittodrie last month before netting three goals.
There should be no fear, but excitement and confidence, in Aberdeen’s ranks. The last time Aberdeen played at Pittodrie in the group stage of European competition was back in 2007 against FC Copenhagen.
Jimmy Calderwood’s side emerged 4-0 winners to qualify for the last-32 of the Uefa Cup amid a deafening din as Jamie Smith bagged two wonderful goals. There has rarely been a night like it since.
Thursday is a chance for Robson and his team to write their own story. If the club is to achieve the status Cormack believes is possible, that tale has to start with a win.