The Finnish Veikkausliiga kicked-off to an extremely interesting start: Of the title favourites FC Honka look decent but are finding it hard to turn their possession game into victories. HJK seem strong but are yet to be tested by the top teams. FC Inter are improving by the week after a cagey start and Tampere United have ‘crisis’ spelled all over them.

FC Honka search for victories

FC Honka, who were declared as the biggest championship favourites here at I Went for the Ball! (see http://mkitunen.wordpress.com/2009/04/19/veikkausliiga-2009-the-season-pre-view/ ), remain undefeated but have only managed to pick up seven points from five games. Honka showcased their potential in the 5-2 destruction of VPS at the Hietalahti stadium but apart form their trip to Vaasa, their undisputed potential has not yet flourished. Their drawing streak has kept them in a surprisingly low position in the table (6th), and the 0-0 stalemate at home to MyPa last Thursday highlighted Honka’s weaknesses and left the team seemingly frustrated. After the match, Mika Lehkosuo, the Honka coach, was right to criticise his players of naivety. Lehkosuo accused them of not being direct and brave enough in their approach and, in stead, being too content with simply keeping possession. However, the same accusation of naivety can be directed at Lehkosuo as well who has shown signs of tactical fallibility in the early stages of the season.

Despite the skill Honka have in midfield (the permanent seems to have become Niki Otaru-Vesa Vasara-Joel Perovuo-Demba Savage), they clearly lack physicality and a dose of no-nonsense attitude. MyPa can be accused of having been extremely negative, keeping ten men behind the ball at most times, but their tactics, nevertheless, succeeded in taking the sting out of the Honka attack. Honka were indeed not determined enough to put the MyPa defence to the sword but rather just kept passing the ball around the park for much of the match. The Honka players did not start the attack quickly enough when getting possession which gave time for MyPa to get organised and, as a result, only rarely had the Honka full-backs space to overlap. In this situation the wingers, Otaru and Savage, should have tried to create space by challenging the defenders more often, but despite their industriousness and skill both kept making too many wrong choices when in possession. Hannu Haarala might not be the most dazzling of player but his consistency would be a welcomed quality as opposed to the erratic performances seen by the young Honka wingers. At the moment, however, it’s Markus Paatelainen’s (suffering from a mystical knee injury) directness that Lehkosuo must sorely be missing.

The most questionable of Lehkosuo’s choices has been his persistence to play Tuomo Turunen on the left side of the defence  since his best qualities go unexploited as a full-back. Turunen is of course a solid defender but he isn’t really the one to storm up and down the right flank. His natural position would be in the heart of the defence, where he has excelled in the under 21 national team, or the holding midfield position which he made his own last season. Honka have been able at times to control the midfield by keeping possession but when it comes to defending, they are clearly lacking physical presence. Especially in the opening fixture against FC Lahti, Lehkosuo was extremely naïve to field an inexperienced midfield duo Rasmus Schuller (making his first appearance in the opening line-up and fourth overall) and Jussi Vasara against Jukka Vanninen and Eero Korte. The idea must have been to keep possession and that way make the Lahti midfielders track the ball. But as the match progressed, the Lahti midfield started to stamp their authority and especially Jukka Vanninen, one of the true hard-men in the Veikkausliiga, had both Honka players in his back-pocket. Good luck for the 17-year old Schuller, who has a bright future ahead of him, but he was clearly in out of his depth against the physical Lahti midfield who effectively denied space and time in centre midfield. And Lehkosuo should’ve known all this no matter how much he relies on the quality of Honka’s own youth products; an ideology which is, of course, highly admirable. Lehkosuo’s selection was unusual especially since he had both Turunen and Perovuo (suffering from a slight hand injury) available. It’s telling that Perovuo has featured in the opening line-up as a holding midfielder ever since the season-opener and that Schuller has taken his seat on the bench.

Of course in the absence of natural left sided full-backs, it is justifiable to use the versatile Turunen there but, nevertheless, Lehkosuo’s decision not to maximise the abilities of, perhaps, the most naturally gifted player in the squad, a player who would not only provide the needed steel but also sound passing in the middle section of the pitch, remains peculiar. Despite Perovuo’s neat passing ability and good vision, Honka need someone who has a more physical approach in the centre of their park, and in the absence or other candidates Turunen seems like the obvious choice.

The troubling left-back position, however, is not the biggest of Lehkosuo’s worries. The most pressing cause for concern have been the indifferent performances of last year’s Veikkausliiga top scorer, Aleksander Kokko, who is still looking for his first goal of the season. Kokko started the Lahti game but never looked like finding mutual understanding with Hermanni Vuorinen. Luckily Vuorinen struck gold from the word go and has already found the net six times. While Kokko (and Jami Puustinen) has been shooting blanks, John, “The Magician”, Weckstörm has been used in the ‘hole’ behind Vuorinen. Nonetheless, even though like his nick-name suggests, Weckstöm can occasionally pull an ace up his sleeve, his technical abilities too often only flatter to deceive his inconsistency. What Honka need now is not a scorer of great goals but a great scorer of goals, something which Kokko was last term. In spite of all the concerns and although Honka have not been raising a storm in the opening weeks of the new season, no one in Espoo should become disillusioned just yet. As soon as Honka find the missing pieces in their attacking play, they should start dominating.

HJK off to a good start

As the next door neighbours from Espoo are still finding their mojo, HJK have left no one in doubt of their strength. Ten points from four matches sees them on top of the table with a game in hand to second place FC Inter. Although the TPS coach, Pasi Rautiainen, declared that Klubi look so strong that they already have put the bubbly on ice, HJK haven’t really sparkled yet and should not delude themselves with a false sense of superiority. HJK are undeniably in good form, but it has to be taken into account that the fixture list has been quite forgiving to them. They have played three times at home, and the only BIG victory so far has been away to FC Haka.

In the opening fixture HJK demolished KuPS 5-1 without really having to break a sweat. The next match was already much trickier against an agitated TPS side that had been defeated by Haka a few days earlier. HJK was in control for the whole of the first half as TPS were contented simply to park the bus in front of their goal and let the home team keep possession. HJK should’ve had more to show for their domination than a slim 1-0 lead after the first forty-five minutes and it came as no surprise that HJK’s pedestrianism and a false feeling of being in control was punished by the visitors during the second half. TPS came out more active retaining their direct attacking approach but pulling the wingers, Wayne Brown and Mikko Manninen, closer to the centre. This resulted in TPS dispossessing the midfield from the home team and before the players in white and blue realised what had happened, TPS had taken the lead on the 66th minute. As seen so many times before, the HJK coach, Antti Muurinen, couldn’t respond to the tactical changes made by the opposition and, in the end, HJK were fortunate to get the equaliser from a great individual effort by Medo.

On a more positive note, the HJK defence have been improving after a somewhat shaky start to the season, and the high profile signings, Sebastian Sorsa and Valeri Popovitsh, have both succeeded. Popovitsh has scored three goals of which especially the one against his former club Haka was delightful (which he celebrated with uninhibited, almost aggressive elation). But it is Sorsa who has provided a whole new dimension to the HJK attack. Sorsa’s tremendous work-rate, directness and consistently dangerous crossing make him an indispensable player to Klubi.

During the next three weeks before the summer break, HJK entertain Honka, Lahti and TamU at home which will give us a good idea of how strong HJK really are. Next Thursday Honka come to the Finnair Stadium (which is Honka’s home away from home as the pitch at the Tapiolan urheilupuisto is being replaced) and an empathic victory for HJK against their biggest rivals would really show who wears the trousers in not only the capital area but in the Veikkausliiga as well.

Tampere United hit the crisis note

It was all supposed to go so well for TamU this season. They were not only touted as one of the strongest championship candidates by many pundits but had the league cup victory to show for it as well. As the storm clouds in the TamU boardroom were supposed to have passed, there was a promise of a new, clear dawn in Tampere. Now with less than a month since the start of the season, both the Director of Football, Jarkko Wiss, and the President, Sami Salonen, have clearer their desks and left the club in a state of disarray. Things would not be so bad if TamU were enjoying success on the pitch but things have gone terribly wrong there as well. The 0-2 humiliation at home to FF Jaro in the opening fixture set the alarm bells ringing. The follow-up, a 1-4 defeat away to MyPa, rekindled the full blown disaster which was followed by the resignation of Wiss.

On Friday TamU hosted TPS, another struggling side in search of their first victory. It was not only a clash between two forces in Finnish football who have lost their bearings but also between two of the most controversial coaches, Ari Hjelm and Pasi Rautiainen, in Finnish football. It was, therefore, if not a season-defining fixture, at least a chance to calm the situation for both clubs and give breathing space for both coaches. TamU’s poor start has been even more perplexing since their squad boasts big players on every department: Mikko Kaven (benched after the MyPa game after having made over two hundred consecutive appearances) in goal; Mathias Lindstöm and Jussi Kujala in defence; Juska Savolainen, Tomi Petrescu and Antti Pohja in midfield; and Jari Niemi in attack. Taking their potential into account, TamU looked uninventive and frustrated. They were slow and unorganised in attack and quite easily kept in check by the highly organized and stubborn TPS defence throughout the first half. Neither team looked much like scoring but it was the visitors who took the lead through a Christian Andreasen (making his second appearance and first start) goal on the 29th minute. Wayne Brown delivered a quality cross from a free kick that took a deflection inside the area ending up in the feet of Andreasen who had an easy job in walking the ball over the goal line. The TamU players were signalling offside but the referee was rightfully having none of it. In the second half, TamU came out more aggressive and forced the TPS keeper, Jukka Lehtovaara, to numerous match-winning saves. Aleksei Kangaskolkka, particularly, will be having nightmares after his astonishing miss from about four meters from goal.

It was one of those nights for TamU when nothing seems to go their way. And as so often happens in these situations, the opposition ends up punishing you. Rautiainen made three attacking substitutes even though they were on the back foot throughout the second half. Rautiainen’s open-mindedness paid off when Babatunde Wusu (substituted for Andreasen) wrestled the ball form Lindström in the edge of the area, delivered it inside the box to Wayne Brown who smashed it behind TamU keeper Juho Soukiala. While TamU were throwing away opportunities like they were rotten apples, TPS made the most of their only chance in the latter half. With two goals and three assist the hard-working and skilful Wayne Brown (on loan from Fulham) has been one of the best players in the Veikkausliiga and absolutely vital for TPS.

Pasi Rautiainen was visibly relieved after the match and happy that his team finally had the luck which had steered clear off then in their first matches. As always luck is something you have to earn and on Friday TPS well deserved their share of it. TPS did what we are accustomed to see TamU do so effectively: They relied on a rigid team defence, waited patiently for the chance to attack and when the possibility was afforded they grabbed it with great resolve. TPS can rest easy relying that as long as they stick to their game plan, victories will follow. For TamU (now sitting 4th from bottom after having scored a pathetic two goals in four matches of which three have been played at Ratina), however, the prospects look even gloomier than this time last term.

  1. HJK                         4  310 11 – 4    10
  2. FC Inter                 5  311 5 – 3      10
  3. FC Lahti                 4  220 7 – 3       8
  4. IFK Mariehamn  5  221 7 – 4       8
  5. Haka                        5  221 5 – 4       8
  6. FC Honka               5  140 10 – 7   7
  7. TPS                           5  131 6 – 5       6
  8. MYPA                     4  121 5 – 3       5
  9. FF Jaro                   4  121 4 – 3       5
  10. KuPS                        5  113 4 – 10    4
  11. TamU                      4  103 2 – 8      3
  12. JJK                           3  021 0 – 2     2
  13. VPS                          4  013 2 – 7      1
  14. RoPS                        3  012 1 – 6      1