It’s been a fixture rush for most Veikkausliiga teams, most playing three matches in the space of a week and a half. Some (like FC Inter and FC Haka) have jumped to the challenge and ripped the rewards of a busy schedule and others (HJK and FC Haka) have crawled into their shells and slowly started to disintegrate.

The first derbies of the 2009 Veikkausliiga season have also been played. In Turku Inter crossed swords with TPS and came out unscratched with a 2-0 victory. Meanwhile, Haka beat TamU (if this can be classified as a derby) 1-0 in an event that probably didn’t set too many pulses racing. However, in Helsinki HJK and Honka put in an excellent show with a 1-1 draw, a result which is a gross understatement of the entertainment showcased at the Finnair Stadium.

HJK – FC Honka: HJK drew first blood in a thrilling derby, only for Honka to ruin their party in extra-time

The 1-1 result, with both goals from corner-kicks, would seem like a boring and predictable result. But, in truth, the first Capital derby match of the season was a cracking display of high-paced, end-to-end football; a perfect example of the quality of Veikkausliiga football which is so often talk down by the Finns (a sorry national characteristic), some of whom view blindly and uncritically the predictable and over-rated Premier League as a footballing promised land, without bothering to look at what’s happening in their own backyard. It was an open game with both teams creating numerous goal scoring opportunities especially in the first half and displaying technical prowess throughout the match.

Especially HJK looked totally a different team from the directionless group of players in Kouvola against MyPa. And even the HJK coach, Antti Muurinen, who is so often criticised here at I Went for the Ball, got his tactics right this time.

HJK operated as a solid, compact unit throughout the match when defending, the HJK central midfielders (Medo and Ville Taulo) doing a good job in taking away the space between midfield and defence and this way forcing Honka to play diagonal passes forward. The Honka forwards (Hermanni Vuorinen and Aleksander Kokko, who spent another evening sleepwalking) were forced to drift away from the centre to the flanks where they pose much less a threat. And even though the HJK midfielders tracked back often, HJK still managed to attack dangerously with pace and inventively exploited space in the Honka defence. HJK showed more variety in their attacking moves than usually, sometimes playing through the centre where Jarno Parikka and Juho Mäkelä clicked nicely a couple of times, but most times using the wingers. The inclusion of Taulo, in the absence of the captain Tuomas Haapala, also brought more creativity in midfield. Taulo and Dawda Bah connected well a few times and the latter was a constant threat to the Honka defence, skinning his marker (Sampo Koskinen who should be among the leading full-backs in the Veikkausliiga, but has had a poor season so far according to his standards) with seeming ease.

Even though Honka forced Ville Wallen to make a couple of quality saves, it was HJK who were closer to score the opener. On the 24th minute the industrious Jarno Parikka played a fine one-two with Sebastian Sorsa, releasing him through, but Sorsa needlessly still tried to find Bah in a situation where it would have been easier to score. A few minutes later, both Bah and Medo came close with shots that licked the frameworks of the goal. Despite an excellent and entertain-packed first period, it was 0-0 at half-time.

In the second halfthe pace of the match understandably slowed down slightly. HJK, nevertheless, started actively and Bah got close with a header from a corner which was cleared off the line by the Honka defence. A few minutes later, Bah was there again, rising above the defence from a Sorsa corner and this time it was 1-0. After the goal, it should have been game, set, and match for HJK as Honka were creating very little. But keeping a clean sheet seems to be an impossibility for HJK and they conceded a morale-trashing equaliser from a set-piece in extra-time.

HJK left the Finnair Stadium disgruntled, not only because they threw away two points after having been on the driver’s seat for most of the match, but also because dubious refereeing decisions went against them again: a disallowed goal in the first half and Paulus Roiha sent off in the dying minutes of the second.

It was difficult to say whether the goal should have stood, the referee (Ville Järvenpää) maybe got this one right.  The card, however, was clearly of the wrong colour. Roiha’s foul on Jussi Vasara was clear, but it did not entitle a red card. A yellow would’ve been enough especially since the referee’s line throughout the match had been quite lenient to all kinds of pushing and pulling. Also, both players came studs up for the tackle and Vasara should’ve have been at least cautioned as well for his foul.

The standard of refereeing in the Veikkausliiga has been poor for years. The referees act arrogantly and are too often missing a clear line in their decision making. Roiha was furious after the match and had every right to be. He was sent off after an apparent but by no means dangerous tackle while in the match against MyPa a few days ago, Maxim Votinov got away with a yellow after launching an ugly and cowardice tackle on Tuomas Haapala (and injuring him for 4-6 weeks). There’s lots of talk about referees not getting enough respect from players, which is justified, but the discourse should go in the other direction as well. In the context of the Veikkausliiga, referees are often seen as victims and because of that handled with kid gloves. It is strange that referees feel so paranoid. They do not have an reason to act that way since due the lack of football journalism in Finland, the only ones who criticise them are the handful of fans shouting abuse from the stands and the coaches at the touchline. There should be more constructive discussion on the standards of refereeing and the line of decision making that they try to uphold as well as about the relationship between referees and players.

FC Inter on top after a professional 2-0 victory in Kuopio

A lot can happen in a week. HJK dropped from pole position to third after drawing 1-1 in Jyväskylä, with FC Lahti now breathing on their back having a game in hand. With their first defeat of the season away to TamU, Honka have slipped to eight having played a game more than clubs below them. It’s all been pretty peachy for Honka and their coach, Mika Lehkosuo, until now in the Veikkausliiga. But after the 1-0 defeat in Tampere (where they managed to go through to motions without getting a single shot on goal), Honka are not only languishing in the bottom half of the table but are also suffering from a full-blown crisis. This is the tightest spot Lehkosuo (and his young team) has been in during his short spell as a coach. And it’s going to be interesting to see how Lehkosuo will cope with the pressure and whether he has the mental qualities to lift his team and stop the down-ward trend until it becomes a free-fall. The team definitely have the quality to make it happen and despite Lehkosuo’s lack of experience, he should be able to turn it around. Lehkosuo is very much an analytical coach who can distance himself from the situation and approach the crisis with the required calmness of resolution. The championship train has not yet passed Espoo but it is approaching fast. Providing that they will start pulling in the victories, they still have a slim chance of catching it by the skin of their teeth.

Meanwhile, as the biggest title favourites have been dropping points, Inter have confidently gone about their business. They haven’t lost since the season opener and nor have they conceded in the last five fixtures, collecting thirteen points from them (last three games all 2-0 victories, including the derby against TPS).

The best guarantee for the championship is a tight, uncompromising defence and with Claudio Verino and Ari Nyman blocking the centre, Inter seem to have one. Although this early in the season, it’s still pre-mature to say whether Inter really have what it takes to re-claim the title, but be that as it may, Inter do look strong especially at the back (by comparison, HJK have conceded seven and only once kept a clean sheet).

Verino has proven to be a quality signing. He is authoritative in the air, not only winning the ball but also heading it accurately; he doesn’t let people past him and has a decent left foot. Although the Argentinean has been the one grabbing the headlines, Nyman (shifted from midfield to the centre of the defence after the first match) is perhaps an even more important piece in the Inter defence line. With his experience and Inter background, he has the authority and qualities to lead the defence. Due to the language barrier, Verino (who reportedly doesn’t speak much English either) needs a calm and experienced defender to partner him so that he can maximise his qualities (something that didn’t happen in the IFK Mariehamn match when he was partnered by Joni Aho). And this arrangement works very well for the whole team since while Nyman is the man pulling the strings, Verino is released to do his business of mixing it with the opposition’s attackers.

Even though Inter was never going to have that many difficulties this season, it’s still a bit of a surprise that they are on top of the table after seven matches.

In the coming week, the pressure is really on HJK and Honka who play against FC Lahti and TamU (both at home) and JJK (away) and FF Jaro (home), respectively. For Honka it’s beginning to be a make or break situation. Two victories (or at least four points) and they are in a touching distance from the leading pack. Failing to do that and they can start looking downwards in the table. HJK is also in a dire need of two victories, after collecting only two points from the last three games, if they want to keep taps on Inter. Also, Muurinen needs to start earning his salary if he is thinking of being the coach at HJK next season. He has a contract for this term and it is likely that he won’t be sacked no matter what happens (unless things go horribly wrong, which is most unlikely). But if HJK have slipped too far from the pole position come the summer break, the search will be on for his replacement for next season.

FC Inter 7 5 1 1 9 – 3 16
Haka 7 4 2 1 9 – 5 14
HJK 7 3 3 1 13 – 7 12
FC Lahti 6 3 3 0 11 – 6 12
MYPA 7 2 4 1 8 – 5 10
IFK Mariehamn 6 2 3 1 7 – 4 9
TPS 7 2 3 2 8 – 7 9
FC Honka 7 1 5 1 11 – 9 8
FF Jaro 6 2 2 2 7 – 6 8
TamU 6 2 0 4 3 – 9 6
JJK 5 0 4 1 2 – 4 4
KuPS 6 1 1 4 4 – 12 4
RoPS 5 0 2 3 3 – 10 2
VPS 6 0 1 5 3 – 11 1