On Monday, Haka entertained TPS in Valkeakoski in a match between two teams that had lost just one game from their last ten and were second and third respectively in the table. All was, therefore, set for a cracking match of Veikkausliiga football. And a cracking match it was; just too bad only one team turned up as the visitors were unstoppable and brushed past a below-par Haka.
Even if Haka were pathetic (despite a fifteen minute period in the second half when they were already 2-0 down) that isn’t taking anything away from the team from Turku. Only very rarely do you see such as dominating and impressive performance from any Veikkausliiga team. TPS were simply superior on every department. Their defence was solid, despite a couple of scares, and especially the storming full-backs were instrumental. Sami Rähmönen and Iiro Aalto (the former HJK favourite) kept the Haka wingers completely in check and created constant danger in the opposite end as they broke through the flanks with perfectly timed runs.
If the full-backs were hot, the midfielders were on fire. In terms of talent and potential, TPS have the best midfield in the league (excluding HJK perhaps) but until now they’ve only shown glimpses of what they can do. At the Tehtaankenttä, however, everything clicked and TPS’s midfield domination was so painstakingly clear that even for someone who didn’t know which sport he/ she was watching, the umpteenth interception followed by a cleaver opening pass must have given the game away. You would have almost started to feel a bit sorry for the home team if it would not have been for the fact that you were simply so thrilled to watch a total destruction of a Haka team that have been surprisingly good this season. This time around, they just went out with less than a whimper.
From the first whistle, TPS were aggressive in their pressing and tackling, taking the sting out of the playmaker Mika Mäkitalo and wiping the turf with Haka’s hardman, Jani Kauppila. When TPS got possession, they looked extremely confident in their passing; combining nicely time and again with a couple of neat passes, before playing the ball to a dangerous area where the attackers, Wusu and Mikko Paatelainen, made well-timed runs.
It was possession football at its best: vertical not horizontal. The seasoned Englishman, Chris Cleaver operated well in a holding role but also took part in making play. Kasper Hämäläinen was as neat in his passing as ever but also showed his physical side by stamping authority with strong tackling, something which is often forgotten in his game. Wayne Brown, the Fulham loanee, who has been a key member in the squad all season, put in a man-of-the-match performance. Excellent with the ball, never giving away possession and always with an eye for a pass, he was responsible for many of the TPS attacks. Brown’s work ethic is exemplary and his quality undisputable; whether it will be enough for the Premier League is a matter for Roy Hodgson to decide but in the Veikkausliiga (despite this being his first season) he is one of the best. Also, Mikko Manninen (the former Haka man) deserves credit for his effort and it looks like he is finally starting to show his quality in the second half of the season. Tireless and direct, Manninen was a constant nuisance for the Haka defence as he surged down the right flank.
This was the best TPS all season and perhaps the best performance from any team in the Veikkausliiga in 2009. After a slow start, TPS have found their stride and their mix of possession football and direct counter-attacking is both effective and entertaining. The biggest praise goes to Pasi Rautiainen, the coach, who has instilled a perfect playing style to a team which he not only didn’t build but which is also somewhat unbalanced in terms of the squad.
Are TPS candidates for the title then? The answer is – without question – yes. And they get a chance to prove it next Sunday as HJK come to town. Rautiainen, as coy as ever, immediately threw the ball at HJK’s court in the post-match interview. After describing HJK as “an undoubtedly superior team to anyone this season” he continued modestly: “I hope even the Inter fans will come and support TPS on Sunday, because it would be important for Finnish football that someone could throw a spanner in the works for HJK. And we will be trying that, although it seems impossible”. Well, Rautiainen who is known for his colourful comments might see the “impossible” happen as the two in-form teams lock fists. TPS are not only in good form but their game looks like a Harrods gift-wrapped Christmas package compared to the constantly half-finished product of HJK. TPS came away disappointed, clutching only a point, from the Finnair Stadium in April. They may be celebrating all three at the Veritas Stadion on Sunday.