Perhaps HJK felt lonely in their ivory tower on top of the Veikkausliiga table a couple of weeks ago and consequently decided to drop some points in order to make friends with the other top teams. It is understandable, it can be lonely at the top but HJK’s yearning for company, however, can come at a high cost as the challengers (TPS (28), Haka (28) and Honka (26)) are now all within six points of the league leaders. On the face of it, a four point gap to TPS and Haka should feel relatively safe for the mighty HJK, but Muurinen’s giant seems to be suffering from a heavy case of self-doubt. It is said that if you don’t learn from your past mistakes, you’re bound to repeat them. And as we speak, the warning lights are flashing at the Finnair Stadium that history might repeat itself. HJK are in similar circumstances where they were last season when they threw away a seemingly safe lead exactly at the moment when they should have delivered the finishing left hook. After dropping their guard again, the Helsinki team may all of a sudden find themselves in a difficult title-fight as they travel to two extremely difficult away games to Maarianhamina and Espoo (both MIFK and Honka are yet to loose at home) with an injury troubled squad during the next two weeks.
Then again, it will be far from easy for the rest in the title challenger bunch as all top teams have a challenging fortnight ahead of them:
TPS entertain TamU (in Tampere it took the whole of the first half of the season to realise that the season is actually in progress, but now they’ve got their act together) and Inter (Inter have destroyed their city-rival in the last three matches with a brutal 9-0 goal difference); Haka play JJK (home) and TamU (away); and Honka face MyPa (away) and challenge HJK at home.
HJK: midfield worries
Bad form is often followed by bad luck and HJK suffered a huge blow as they lost their key midfielder Medo for three to four weeks in the 3-3 match against Haka on Sunday. Also both Tuomas Haapala and Ville Taulo are still looking for match fitness after injuries and despite Cheyne Fowler being decent in their absence, the tall defensive midfielder can’t provide the attacking craft now missing from HJK’s midfield without Medo. With Medo out for at least four games, the most sensible solution would be to play Fowler, Haapala and Taulo in midfield with Taulo operating in the offensive tip in the midfield triangle. Although Taulo is best in the quarter-back role, especially his ability to keep the ball in tight spaces makes him a good choice since HJK like to play with a single striker. Because of Taulo’s ability to keep possession, the forward can push further up and HJK can get to deeper areas with a single opening pass. Also, Taulo and Dawda Bah can on occasion switch positions and add movement and variation into the HJK attack. Naturally, both Jarno Parikka and Valeri Popovits can also operate ‘in the hole’ but the former is more useful up-front and the latter doesn’t seem to be useful anywhere anymore.
Estimation: Despite HJK’s troubles, they will be celebrating the title in October.
TPS: Brown returning to Fulham
TPS are almost in striking distance from HJK and largely without injuries (Simo Valakari is still missing from the team sheet, but not sorely missed). However, the departure of Wayne Brown, their best player, causes a concern as TPS’s excellent form is much due to their flowing midfield play. Brown’s movement, ability to keep the ball, his passing range and dead-ball expertise have been decisive in TPS’s attacking play all season. There are several good solutions to the Brown-problem and because of this it is strange that Pasi Rautiainen refuses to believe that Yll Hoxha is not really that good (or at least not ready yet) since he has substituted him stubbornly for Kasper Hämäläinen in the last few matches. One solution might be that Hoxha would take Hämäläinen’s place beside Chris Cleaver which would release Hämäläinen from his defensive duties a bit so that he could push further up. If only it would be that easy. Hoxha hasn’t really brought anything into the matches he has featured in other than bags of immature choices with the ball. He tries pointlessly difficult things when he should just keep things simple. As far as I know, he might be brilliant on the training pitch, knocking 40-meter passes into a bucket, but his abilities cannot keep up in the Veikkausliiga pace. A more sensible and obvious solution would simply be to replace Brown with the talented Riku Riski who has similar abilities with the Englishman. Another choice, especially if things start to go wrong, would be to play with two upfront now that Mika Äääritalo is back in business and has a couple of goals to show for it. This would mean a flexible 4-4-2 with Ääritalo (or Riski) on the left and Mikko Paatelainen (or Ääritalo) up-front with Wusu. Brown’s absence will be a massive blow to TPS but they have enough quality to fight for the title to the end.
Estimation: Despite Brown’s departure, TPS will be able to keep their second place.
Haka: too little quality
TPS exposed Haka’s weaknesses two weeks ago, coming away with a 3-0 victory from Valkeakoski. The 3-3 draw in Helsinki last Sunday was more to do with HJK’s inability than Haka’s quality. Haka have been stretching their performances to the utmost maximum but now something has to give. There simply isn’t enough quality on any department. The defence is as good as Diego Corpache’s match day form. The midfield is industrious but lacks attacking verve (Sebastian Strandwall perhaps being the only player who has impressed on occasion). Mika Mäkitalo was excellent with Dominic Chatto at Inter last season but in an inferior team, he isn’t able to make a difference. The attackers have been shooting blanks all season and it is a footballing fact that without a good striker, it is simply impossible to win the title (Niko Ikävalko with two goals is Haka’s nro.1 striker, oh dear). Also, with players still coming and going through the door and rumours of a rift between Olli Huttunen and the owner Sedu Koskinen, the autumn doesn’t bode well for the Valkeakoski team.
Estimation: Haka will drop outside the top four behind TamU and/ or IFK Mariehamn.
Honka: the European League a mixed blessing
Honka was supposed to be written off from the list of title challenger weeks ago but now found themselves in the mix. If Honka could pull it off, it would be a small miracle since they trail HJK by six points and would have to get past both Haka and TPS. It is possible, though, since they seem to have found their form, at last, at a critical moment. A win against HJK and they can really start making their autumn spurt for the finishing line. However, again Honka’s title hopes are mixed with their European dreams and last season they were unable to negotiate between the two and fell agonizingly short on both fronts. Despite a hectic schedule, Honka can draw strength from the fact that they have pretty much an injury-free squad (despite slight knocks to Nicholas Otaru and Aleksandr Kokko). Also, Jaakko Lepola and Rasmus Schuller have impressed and drawn the limelight away from the players that featured in the U21 Euro Championships. Teemu Turunen’s transfer to IFK Göteborg won’t change anything in Mika Lehkosuo’s plans since Turunen had in a way been an extra squad member throughout the season who was never supposed to be at Honka when the season started. A slight worry, however, is that Hermanni Vuorinen is the only attacker who finds the net regularly (eleven so far). Jami Puustinen has scored four but he is too one dimensional to be used in any other role than as a substitute. Kokko, on the other hand, has qualities but, at the moment, would probably not even hit water if he was standing with a bag of balls in a boat.
Estimation: Especially if Honka gets to the first round of the European League, the fixture list will become too heavy. Third.
Whatever happens during the next two rounds, we will have a tantalising two weeks of Veikkausliiga football ahead of us.