A bit over a week has passed since HJK were crowned champions at the Finnair Stadium, a cleansing celebration ending their six year title hiatus. And now that Helsinki has quietened down after being taken over by a seven day long, continuous, pulsating block party (no, seriously, I did see one or two HJK scarves worn proudly on the Saturday night on the town), it’s time to assess the new champions in detail.
Overall, it was a curious season for HJK. They did not ascend the throne with any indomitable style, they didn’t even look that convincing at most times. They were like an all too stereotypically characterised villain in a cheap play, with a sleek, ominous air, a hidden physical deformity and who, according to any dramatic guidelines should fall victim to his own mischief, somehow in the end manages to take advantage of his antagonistic role by lurking in the shadows of the gallant and fearless protagonist (played collectively by FC Honka and TPS), biding his time carefully before stabbing the dagger in the hero’s back. TPS and Honka might have played the best football in 2009 but after HJK got in terms with their rubbish playing and managed to turn the lack of aesthetics into their favour, they actually deserved to win the championship; a claim underlined by the inability of TPS and Honka to produce anything other than a 0-0 draw in the final round. So despite the chorus of grumbles complaining about HJK’s below-par football, the fact is and ever remains that the table is incorruptible and doesn’t lie.
The last match at home to FF Jaro was quintessential ‘Klubi’ in 2009 in many ways. HJK needed a point and a point is exactly what they took, but not before digging themselves deep in trouble, only to be rescued by one of their stars of the season. Jaro took the lead on the eight minute after a series of simple defensive cock-ups for the home defence. After the goal, HJK seemed not to push the panic button but to smash it with their fist. Their playing was riddled with wrong choices as every player somehow seemed to forget that they were playing at home against Jaro with still over eighty minutes to go.
In the second half, though, the spectators saw a different HJK. Immediately they showed the kind of resolution and confidence fit for champions. And after a few well-teed but badly executed chances, the inevitable happened on the sixty-first minute. Dawda Bah had no other chance but to score as he found the ball at his feet on the six-yard line. You could hear a tremendous collective sigh sweep round the stadium before the frantic celebrations commenced. Those who saw the goal in replay might have though that once again HJK got lucky, but the truth is that the home side should have scored three or four. In the end, it was as if HJK were content to keep up the futile hopes of both sets of fans in Turku, if for no other reason but to spite them.
Throughout the season, HJK’s football might have looked as flowing as watching concrete go through a pasta machine but that is beside the point, for now at least. As so often is the case, and in football more often than not, the end justifies the means and since 2009 was all about winning the championship, HJK fans will let the aesthetic question slide. However, if this kind of football remains the motif in 2010, HJK need more than the title to consolidate their status as the leading club in Finland and to satisfy the demands of their fans.
It was a testament to the quality and depth of HJK’s material that they managed to win the championship regardless of dragging a baggage of flaws behind them that would normally have hampered any title hopes: they triumphed regardless of having a coach who is without adequate 21st century tactical acumen, despite playing rubbish football, having so many underachievers in the team and being without a striker scoring double-figures. The victory was defined more by the brilliance of a few individuals than the collective.
Ville Wallén (GK; 26/ 0/ 0): The bedrock on which HJK founded their title hopes. Too often was forced to make a game-winning save or three to patch up the holes in the defence. Consistent performer and an excellent shot-stopper, again among the top three keepers in Veikkausliiga.
Sebastian Sorsa (RM; 25/ 6/ 11): The marquee signing for HJK this season who exceeded all expectations. His six goals and eleven assists made him the second most prolific player in the league. With an outstanding work-rate and tremendous industry, he is useful to the team even on the rare occasion when he isn’t able to utilise his attacking strengths. His pace, directness and a lethal crossing make him the best winger in the league. HJK’s player of the season.
Dawda Bah (LM; 25/ 8/ 7): After a frustrating 2008 season, finally fulfilled his potential this term. Despite looking unfocused and sluggish at times, the tall Gambian was unstoppable especially against weaker opponents. Should sharpen his crossing and final pass though. HJK’s joint top scorer with Mäkelä with eight goals.
Aki Riihilahti (CM; 10/ 3/ 0): With his winning mentality and professionalism, more than his
actual footballing qualities, provided a huge boost for the team (But then again, he has always been the embodiment of a player who is more than the sum of his parts). However, this is not to say that the team didn’t benefit from the former Crystal Palace player’s massive footballing expertise. Even though seldom excelling with the ball, his attacking decisions are often better than they seems at first glance. With his presence, always made the opposition’s life difficult. Scored three important goals, twice bringing HJK up from the dead at crucial moments. Would HJK have won the title without Riihilahti?
Pyry Kärkkäinen (CD; 26/ 2/ 0): HJK’s leading defender. Many questioned his acquisition but it didn’t take long for the former Finnish U21 player to show he is good enough for HJK. Not a spectacular season but was consistent from start to finish. Would flourish partnering a ball-playing central defender. Powerful in the air, strong in challenges and with decent skill, has got all the qualities needed to be a leading defensive centre-back in Veikkausliiga in the future.
Jukka Raitala (LD; 20/ 0): Was HJK’s most consistent defender before transferring to Hoffenheim. Oppositions virtually avoided attacking through HJK’s left side because of Raitala’s presence. Right time to move abroad since Veikkausliiga couldn’t provide any challenges any more for the 21-year-old HJK trainee.
Worth their salary:
Cheyne Fowler (CM; 17/ 1/ 1): The South-African missed the spring through injury but had a reasonably big role in the autumn. Was decent whenever called upon but never made a devastating impact. Has good all-round qualities but no real strengths.
Tuomas Haapala (CM; 6/ 0/ 0): The midfield bruiser’s season was cut short by injury. Was his active self in the six matches he featured in but could not produce his very best with the ball. Too alike with Medo and both seemed to suffer from not having strictly defined individual roles. An interesting statistical fact: Haapala didn’t receive a single caution in 2009.
Tuomas Kansikas (LD; 11/ 0/ 0): Had a minimal role before Raitala’s departure. Any concerns HJK fans had about the former MyPa defender’s quality were in the end unnecessary. The skilful and pacey full-back was stronger defensively than had given the impression during his cameos earlier in the season.
Mathias Lindström (CD; 4/ 0/ 0): The no-nonsense centre-back joined from TamU in September and settled into the team immediately. Brought experienced and consistency into the team. Was rotated for some reason with Jukka Sauso.
Medo (CM; 23/ 3/ 2): A slightly frustrating year for the all-action Sierra Leonean. At best a dominant force in midfield but hasn’t been able to rid of his inconsistency and still goes missing during games. Sometimes gives the impression of being all over the place but nowhere at the same time, trying to do everything but ends up doing little. Would benefit from a more strictly defined role. Despite again being one of the best midfielders in the league, the 21-year-old’s development seems to have stalled. The talent is there but perhaps it’d be time to move on abroad in order to start fulfilling it.
Juho Mäkelä (F; 26/ 8/ 2): A highly disappointing spring and summer (managing only four goals in nineteen matches, scoring none in July and August) but the former Hearts man came good at a crucial time in the autumn. Due to his one-dimensionality as a footballer, ‘Super-Mäksä’ lives through his goals and, therefore, the four he scored in September went a long way in punching his stamp on the season.
Ville Taulo (CM/ LM; 12/ 0/ 0): Another season ruined by injury for the talented midfielder. The former FC Lahti man has exactly the kind of qualities HJK need in centre midfield: good vision, effective passing and calmness with the ball. Had his proper chance replacing the injured Haapala, only to jog off injured after a couple of matches. Whenever he featured in centre midfield, HJK’s playing was more fluid and composed than with the pairing of Haapala/ Riihilahti/ Fowler and Medo. Should have been more effective in attack despite limited playing time. If only it wasn’t for those injuries.
Mikko Hauhia (RD; 25/ 0/ 1): Ever-present but never-convincing. A borderline-case whether the 25-year-old would have squeezed himself into the above category. Was never good enough for HJK when he signed in 2006 and during two seasons at the Finnair Stadium, has shown few signs of having the capacity to develop into one. No one can blame the diminutive and tenacious full-back of not pouring his heart out for the case but when the qualities just aren’t there, it’s difficult to live on sympathy alone. Was heavily criticised by a section of Sakilaiset when things were not going well for the team. Although the criticism was harsh, it is easy to see why it was him that became the rotten apple of their eye. Continuously gives the impression of struggling to keep his head above water. There are gaping holes in his positioning and his poor passing ability makes him a non-threat going forward. To make matters worse, was put under a lot pressure in almost every match as teams were only too aware of and keen on exploiting his weaknesses. Somewhat improved during the season but, nevertheless, had it not been for the defensive back-up provided by Sorsa, Hauhia might have sunk below.
Petri Oravainen (LM; 15/ 0/ 0): Has never been among Muurinen’s favourites and his talent went unused. However, this season the winger has only himself to blame for the shortage of opportunities. Is still one of the favourites of the HJK faithful but with these kinds of lacklustre performances, he won’t be for long. Fifteen appearances and nothing to show for it.
Jarno Parikka (F; 24/ 3/ 4): The year that was supposed to be Parikka’s was anything but. The 23-year-old was a consistent performer throughout the season but three goals in twenty-four matches is such a poor rate for a player who was supposed to be HJK’s first choice striker that no matter how you look at it, he was a disappointment. Has developed as a player but lost some of his stealth inside the box. Could do with a bit of weight lifting during the long winter months.
Valeri Popovits (F; 17/ 3/ 0): One of the greatest Veikkausliiga players of all time got the farewell present he truly deserved. After having a bright start to the season, scoring two goals in the first three games, ‘the Tsar’ didn’t have much to offer for HJK any more. Well, one can’t stay young forever and the 39-year-old made his bow as a player form top flight Finnish football by lifting the trophy.
Jukka Sauso (CD; 20/ 0/0): Dear me, dear me. Came from Örgryte in 2008 with a reputation of being a potential national team defender in the future. Started decently but it didn’t take long for him to be found out. This season was even worse. His positioning is still that of a orienteerer reading a map upside-down and his passing as accurate as the gait of a Scotsman on Hogmanay. Must have done something right before joining HJK to warrant the five Finland caps he has notched up, but during the two seasons at the capital, he has only succeeded in proving that he is nowhere near good enough for HJK.
Paulus Roiha (F; 5/ 0/ 0): Injured, again, for most of the season and never reached full match fitness. HJK would have had use for his talent inside the box.
Juhani Ojala (CD; 4/ 0/ 1): The promising centre back filled in for Sauso on occasion. Extended his contract before the end of the season but it’s hard to see where the playing time will come from.
Johannes Westö (LM/ F; 2/ 0/ 0): HJK’s biggest talent made his first appearance in the league and showed that he can cut it when called upon. After a year in the first-division with Klubi 04, the 18-year-old will be more ready to make the step up to the first team.
Mikko Sumusalo (LD; 1/ 0/ 0): The 19-year-old made his début in Veikkausliiga. With full-backs like Hauhia at HJK’s payroll, the Finnish U21 defender must be puzzled by not getting an chance in the first team.
After the 2008 debacle, Antti Muurinen delivered what was demanded in the last year of his contract. Now would have been an excellent opportunity for HJK to part company with him without either having to lose their face (Muurinen cannot be under the illusion that the season was a huge success, taking into account their humiliations in Europa and in the Finnish Cup). But true to the cautious and stagnant way things are handled at HJK, Olli-Pekka Lyytikäinen, the chairman, awarded Muurinen with a new contract. The decision to retain Muurinen for another season is of course justifiable, after all he did manage to quench HJK’s six year title thirst. And of course, it might be that HJK did search high and low for possible candidates but didn’t find a suitable coach.
Nevertheless, in the end, the title seemed to have blinded Lyytikäinen of the fact that with Muurinen HJK are going nowhere as a football club. Muurinen deserves credit for this season especially because he was capable to implement a change in their playing style at a crucial point. However, this does not negate the fact that if HJK want to keep hold of their status as the leading club in Finland and succeed in Europe, they need a coach who is able to create a comprehensive, sustainable and forward-looking playing identity for the collective and not just hope that as long as their defence holds and the key individuals deliver, they’ll be all right.