HJK Helsinki & Swindon Town: The lowdown on Liverpool’s weekend opponents

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Liverpool face HJK Helsinki and Swindon Town in pre-season friendlies this weekend, so Henry Jackson takes a closer look at the Reds’ upcoming opponents.

HELSINKI, FINLAND - Friday, October 9, 2009: Wales' players during training at the Helsinki Olympic Stadium ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Qualifying Group 4 match against Finland. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The start of the 2015/16 Premier League season edges ever closer, and Liverpool’s two final pre-season games take place this coming weekend.

First up are HJK Helsinki on Saturday, at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, before facing Swindon Town at the County Ground less than 24 hours later.

While plenty of focus will be on how Brendan Rodgers rotates his squad during these two quickfire clashes, what about the opposition?

Here is a look at both:

HJK Helsinki

Manager

Helsinki’s man in charge is Mika Lehkosuo; a man who enjoyed great success with the Finnish club as a player between 1993 and 2002.

The 45-year-old former midfielder took charge of the Veikkausliiga club in 2014, having been in charge of the youth team prior to that.

Lehkosuo helped Helsinki reach the Europa League group stages last season, and also guided them to yet another league title.

Key players

Markus Heikkinen- Although now 36 years of age, the 61-time capped former Finland international has been a rock at the back since joining from IK Start last year.

Demba Savage- The speedy Gambia forward has enjoyed a terrific time of things in Helsinki’s attack since arriving in 2012, scoring 40 goals in 93 league appearances.

He was his side’s top scorer last season, finding the net on 11 occasions.

Last season

As mentioned above, the powerhouses of Finnish football won the Veikkausliiga at a canter, finishing 13 points ahead of nearest challengers SJK Seinajoki.

It was their six league crown in succession, which outlines how dominant they have been domestically in recent times.

Pre-season form

Because the Veikkausliiga runs through the English summer, Helsinki are slap-back in the middle of their 2015 campaign.

Despite some iffy results in June and July- they have won just one in four in the league- they still lead the way by two points.

They also reached the Europa League third qualifying round last week, having overcome Latvian side FK Ventspils 4-1 on aggregate.

Swindon Town

Manager

Mark Cooper has been in charge of the Wiltshire club since 2013, having had spells with lower league sides including Kettering Town and AFC Telford United.

He was something of a journeyman during a playing career that spanned three decades- 1987-2009, which is pretty impressive- playing for Bristol City, Exeter City and Leyton Orient, among others.

In Cooper’s two seasons in the County Ground hot-seat so far, Swindon have finished eighth and fourth in League 1, respectively.

Key players

Nathan Thompson- The 24-year-old right-back became a first-team squad member in 2008, having graduated from the youth team, and he is now arguably the first name on the team-sheet.

The captain was named the Robins’ Player of the Year in both 2012/13 and 2013/14, and his early injury in the League 1 play-off final in May played a huge part in the result on the day. More on that later.

Nathan Byrne- Swindon’s left-back was in terrific form in 2014/15, earning a place in the League 1 Team of the Year.

The 23-year-old has been a virtual ever-present over the last two years, since joining in 2013, and is building a decent career after failing to make the grade at Tottenham as a youngster.

Last season

The Robins reached the League 1 play-off final in May, having finished fourth in the table, but were soundly beaten 4-0 by Preston North End on a miserable afternoon at Wembley.

The standout game was an incredible 5-5 draw with Sheffield United in the play-off semi-final second-leg, which meant Swindon prevailed 7-6 on aggregate. [td_ad_box spot_id=“custom_ad_3″]

Pre-season form

Cooper’s side’s summer started with an ignominious 2-1 defeat away to semi-professional side Swindon Supermarine in early July, before a 4-0 loss to Everton at the County Ground.

Conference North side Solihull Moors were up next, but the Robins were defeated 2-1. They got their first win of pre-season on 18th July, beating Petersfield 3-2 away.

A 2-0 loss at home to Aston Villa followed last Tuesday, before a 4-1 hammering by West Brom at the County Ground on Saturday. It’s fair to say that it hasn’t been a great summer for Swindon thus far, and Liverpool await next.

Who will be toughest?

When it comes to assessing which side will be a more formidable opponent for Rodgers and his side, it simply has to be Helsinki.

Not only are the Finnish outfit a better team than Swindon, but they are in the middle of their season, and therefore in better physical shape.

Their summer may not have been the most impressive in terms of results, barring their Europa success, but Swindon’s has been particularly poor.

Whether or not Helsinki go full throttle because of more important upcoming matches is debatable, but either way, they should test Liverpool far more than the Robins.

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