Markus Heikkinen: Dons should be able to Finnish off RoPS threat

© Hannu RantakallioMarkus Heikkinen
Markus Heikkinen

Former Aberdeen star Markus Heikkinen thinks they will have no problems against Europa League first round qualifying opponents RoPS Rovaniemi – if the Dons are up to their usual standards.

Derek McInnes’ team welcome the side from Finland’s chilly far north Lapland region to Pittodrie on Thursday, before the return leg in Scandinavia on July 18.

And Finn Heikkinen thinks the Reds are red-hot favourites to meet Luxembourg’s Fola Esch or Georgia’s Chikhura Sachkere in the second round because of the strength of the Scottish top-flight compared to the league in Finland.

He said: “It’s hard to compare the level of RoPS with the level of Aberdeen.

“I would say if both teams play at their usual level, then I don’t think RoPS have a chance to go through.

“They have to overachieve a lot and Aberdeen have to have a not so good day.”

RoPS are currently struggling in the Veikkausliiga and are 10th after 15 matches.

They’ve fallen significantly after second place bagged continental action for them last term.

In contrast, Aberdeen are still in pre-season and have faced Connah’s Quay Nomads, Peterhead and Inverness Caley Thistle in friendlies.

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According to Heikkinen, the Dons will need to make sure they aren’t caught cold by Finland’s footballing calendar.

He said: “I don’t know how long Aberdeen have had their pre- season, but we’ve seen in Finland before, when teams come in the European cups and they have just started, they are not up to speed yet.

“Later on, it would be more difficult for RoPS to beat them than at the start of the season.”

Ex-midfielder Heikkinen, 40, was a popular figure during his two-season Pittodrie stint in the early 2000s, where he played under Steve Paterson and Jimmy Calderwood.

The 60-plus-capped international returned to Finland to play for HJK Helsinki five years ago, before returning to his hometown team, second tier AC Oulu, where he is sporting director. In this time back in his homeland, he has had frequent encounters with RoPS Rovaniemi and their players.

Heikkinen said: “I played against them with HJK and this winter our Oulu team played a friendly against them.

“I’ve seen them every year since being back in Finland.

“They are in the top league.

“They didn’t have the full squad yet (when Oulu played them). After that they have added some numbers.

“It was a draw.”

Markus Heikkinen in 2003

Although he hasn’t watched RoPS again recently, Heikkinen was able to give some insight into the background of new boss Pasi Tuutti, who was appointed after Toni Koskela left for HJK.

He said: “I don’t know how RoPS have been playing, but I know the results.

“They changed the coach because HJK Helsinki bought their head coach a few of weeks ago.

“(Tuutti) was part of the coaching staff before, but has now assumed the biggest responsibility (as boss).

“He hasn’t been in charge of a top-level team before, so in that sense he’s a bit inexperienced.

“But he’s been coaching 15 or 20 years at all levels, so in that way he’s really experienced.”

Heikkinen, who says the Dons haven’t asked him for any advice ahead of the tie, has also highlighted a couple of players – including former Marseille, AC Milan and Queens Park Rangers full-back Taye Taiwo – who could threaten the Reds.

He added: “One player is from Oulu, Niklas Jokelainen, who is a striker, but I don’t know how much he’s been playing this season.

“There’s one midfielder who was in Helsinki with me, Lucas Lingman.

“He’s a decent player and more of a creative midfielder.

“Of course, when they get a free-kick, he (Taiwo) has an amazing left foot, so within 30 metres he can put them in on his day.”

Dons fans already know about goalkeeper Antonio Reguero, who has had spells with Ross County, Inverness Caley Thistle, Hibernian and Kilmarnock, as well as former Killie centre-back Mahamadou Sissoko.

Meanwhile, Brazilian attacking midfielder Agnaldo spent time at Manchester United earlier in his career, before current Red Devils boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took him to Norway’s Molde.

Circumstances have conspired to leave Heikkinen unable to attend the second leg of the qualifying tie at RoPS’s Keskuskentta Stadium. However, the father-of-three hopes he’ll be able to show his sons his old team by other means.

Heikkinen said: “When I heard about the draw I was happy because I was thinking of going with my kids to watch the game, but on that day we’re in another part of Finland for a youth football tournament, so it’s impossible.

“It would’ve been nice to be there and watch. I will try to watch it on telly if it’s possible.”