I Went for the Ball! Veikkausliiga pre-view is back (since the season has already begun and this piece arrives a little late, the pre-view should perhaps technically be called an overview, but let’s let that insignificant detail slide)! The pre-view has mostly the same basic stuff it had a year ago but to keep things interesting, and to make it more informative, there are some new features added. Instead of estimating the exact positions teams will take at the end of the season, each club is given a range of positions. This should give you a better idea of the potential of each team. For example, JJK are given a range from 8 to 11. This means that if everything goes perfectly, JJK have the potential to reach eight and, conversely, if things don’t go according to plan, they might slip to eleventh. The estimation of the top three as well as the relegated team will be given at the end.

All in all, 2010 will be an exiting season that is characterised by the influx of returnee players. As a result, the standard of individual players has perhaps never been so high in Veikkausliiga. Particularly, Aleksei Eremenko Jr (FF Jaro), Jonatan Johansson (TPS), Janne Saarinen (HJK) and Toni Kuivasto (FC Haka) bring with them truck-loads of quality and experience to Finnish football.

As a downside for Veikkausliiga fans (outside the capital area at least), this year there will be a two-horse title race. HJK and FC Honka are the only teams that genuinely posses enough quality to put up a proper challenge. Outside the title race, however, basically everything is up for grabs. From the big teams, FC Inter and TPS are still works in progress but have undoubted potential. Last season’s biggest surprise package MIFK, and perhaps MyPa, also fancy their chances. From the bottom half, JJK and FF Jaro definitely have the element of surprise and AC Oulu are finally looking to stamp their mark on Veikkausliiga.

It should also be noted that the strength in individuals does not limit to the old hands. Even if the seasoned professionals have taken the headlines before the start of the season, there are a host of exciting young players waiting to grace the Veikkausliiga greens. Riku Riski (and don’t forget his younger brother Roope) (TPS) will finally get his big chance after being shadowed by Wayne Brown last season. Johannes Westö and Juhani Ojala are ready to claim a place at HJK. Juuso Simpanen (FC Honka) wants to follow the path paved by Rasmus Schüller and Jaakko Lepola. Jusu Karvonen is destined for greatness at TamU. And Jani Virtanen (TPS) is determined to show that he wasn’t just a one-match miracle at Udinese.

So here we go then!

AC Oulu

Estimation: 11-14

Last season: Promoted

Coach: Juha Malinen

Captain: Antti Pehkonen

www.acoulu.fi

AC Oulu balance on a knife-edge. The club’s finances are far from solid and the club haven’t been able to create a positive buzz in Oulu. In this respect Oulu is a paradox. The sixth biggest city in Finland, with deep sporting traditions, has not been a healthy breeding ground for a functioning football club since the 1980s. Infightings and rivalries have diminished the allure of Oulu’s footballing flag-ship and unless AC Oulu are able to make themselves a mainstay in Veikkausliiga and cash in on the vast economic potential by winning the hearts of the people of Oulu, they will write yet another bleak chapter in Oulu’s footballing history.

On the pitch, Oulu should be capable of achieving their primary goal: staying up. The squad is by no means bursting with talent, but they have a good coach and there are some decent players: Jarkko Hurme and Janne Hietanen provide the quality in defence, Mika Nurmela will lead the midfield and if Mika Hänninen recovers from his lengthy injury, the former RoPS trainee should prove to be a good signing. The attack, however, is a grey area. Unless Donwell Yobe strikes gold, Oulu might find themselves in a spot of bother.

Key man: Mika Nurmela

One to watch: Jarkko Hurme

Transfers:

In: Janne Hietanen (Roeselare, BEL), Mika Hänninen (FC Lahti), Jani Luukkonen (FC OPA), Mika Lähderinne (KPV), Juuso Majava (RoPS)

Out: Toni Kolehmainen (TPS), John Jonke (Baltimore Crystal palace, USA), Tommi Siekkinen (PS Kemi)

FC Haka

Estimation: 7-10

Last season: 6th

Coach: Sami Ristilä

Captain: Toni Kuivasto

www.fchaka.fi

It’s season two in the Sedu Koskinen era and the guiding line of how to build a successful football club still seems to be missing. A host of player (some quality, some hazardous?) have arrived and another bunch departed from Valkeakoski. It might take a while until it all clicks in Valkeakoski.

On the plus side, Haka have a good keeper and a decent defence on which to build on. However, would Toni Kuivasto and Janne Korhonen get injured, Haka will be in trouble. The substitutes look as shaky as the stool on which Ristiä is sitting on and there are also concerns where the goals are going to come from. Jukka Santala is no stranger to scoring but his form is still a big question mark. Nam Ik Kyung had a good season at JJK but the South-Korean is no a rain maker. Niko Ikävalko had some potential a couple of years ago but he is long overdue in the process of capitalising on it.

If Sedu has the patience to develop the squad gradually and not sack Ristiä after the first sign of trouble, Haka might even surprise a few people this season. If he hasn’t, it’s lower mid-table obscurity for Haka.

Key man: Toni Kuivasto

One to watch: Markus Joenmäki

Transfers:

In: Xhevdet Gela (Atlantis), Nam Ik Kyung (JJK), Toni Kuivasto (Djurgårdens IF), Quincy Osei, Ben Traore

Out: Diego Corpache (retired), Pietari Holopainen (KuPS), Valeri Minkenen (FC Flora), Mika Mäkitalo (FC Inter), Jari Nikkilä (TamU), Petri Viljanen (PoPa)

FC Honka

Estimation: 1-2

2009: 2nd

Coach: Mika Lehkosuo

Captain: Rami Hakanpää

www.fchonka.fi

Honka were the runners-up in 08 and 09 and since this year there is less competition than before for the title, the Espoo team must really fancy their chances. The departure of midfield orchestrator Joel Perovuo will be a huge blow but Honka have shown plenty of evidence that they are more than capable of replacing key players with their own quality youth products. The talented young midfielders Rasmus Schüller and Jaakko Lepola are now a year older and Juuso Simpanen has been hyped to take Veikkausliiga by storm. Regardless of whether or not you believe the hype, Honka do have the most skilful and talented midfield in the league. What they lack is a bit of bite, though.

Honka have ample quality and options for every department. Also, to have a certified hit-man in Hermanni Vuorinen goes a long way in the title race. However, the departure of the assistant coach Kari Martonen to JJK might have a bigger negative effect that it seems at first. Honka fans must be hoping that Gert Remmel will be more successful as an assistant than he was as head coach at HIFK last season.

Honka have almost all the building blocks to win the title. All they need is a touch of ruthlessness. Therefore, in order to challenge HJK, Honka need to realise that they don’t have to sell their ideals short in order to win ugly every now and again.

Key man: Rami Hakanpää

One to watch: Juuso Simpanen

Transfers:

In: none

Out: Joel Perovuo (Djurgårdens IF, SWE), Jarkko Värttö (FC Lahti)

FC Inter

Estimation: 3-5

2009: 5th

Coach: Job Drgatsma

Captain: Henri Lehtonen

www.fcinter.com

Last season was a disappointment for the 2008 champions. The new signings didn’t really light up the sky in Turku but rather took the club a step backwards. Now Inter should be able to get back to form.

A lot depends on Mika Mäkitalo who returns after having spent a disappointing year at FC Haka. The 24-year-old playmaker holds the keys to Inter’s industrious but lukewarm midfield. The defence, however, is solid with Ari Nyman and Joni Aho playing in the centre. Inter also have one of the best strikers in the league in Timo Furuholm who is virtually carrying the goalscoring burden for the whole team. To challenge for the title, underachievers like Guillano Grot and Kennedy Nwanganga need to step up.

Key man: Timo Furuholm

One to watch: Joni Kauko

Transfers:

In: Mika Mäkitalo (Haka), Daniel Antunez (Pallo-Iirot)

Out: Touko Tumanto (JJK), Aristides Pertot, Alberto Ramirez (Club Futbol Tecos, MEX), Arttu Seppälä (VPS), Claudio Verino (Tristan Suarez, ARG)

FC Lahti

Estimation: 7-10

Last season: 11th

Coach: Ilkka Mäkelä

Captain: Jukka Vanninen

www.fclahti.fi

Last season was both a success and a disappointment in Lahti. Lahti had an excellent run in the Europa League qualifiers (getting to the third qualifying round) but were poor in Veikkausliiga. The success in Europe confirmed something many might have forgotten: Lahti have one of the best coaches in Veikkausliiga.

There are some good players but the squad grows very thin beyond the starting eleven. Eero Korte and Jukka Vanninen are the heart and soul of this team, and Jari Litmanen can still provide the brilliance from time to time. Goals might become a problem but if lower-division goal-getter Pekka Sihvola finds his feet in the big time, he should form an ideal big man-little man partnership with Rafael.

Key man: Jukka Vanninen

One to watch: Pekka Sihvola

Transfers:

In: Tennant McVea (Loyola Greyhounds, USA), Pekka Sihvola (FC Hämeenlinna), Janne Törmänen (Klubi-04), Jarkko Värttö (FC Honka)

Out: Konsta Hietanen (MyPa), Mika Hänninen (AC Oulu), Henri Toivomäki (loan: Atalanta, ITA)

FF Jaro

Estimation: 7-10

Last season: 10th

Coach: Aleksei Eremenko Sr

Captain: Aleksei Eremenko Jr

www.ffjaro.fi

FF Jaro give the impression that they are going places at the moment. Having one of Veikkausliiga’s most charismatic coaches in Aleksei Eremenko Sr. Making marquee signings such as Aleksei Eremenko Jr and Venance Zeze. And beating HJK in the League Cup quarter-final. All this after a couple of seasons spent under financial storm clouds. Is all finally well in Pietarsaari? Well, no. The financial troubles have not gone away and the glamour signings are only there on loan. And, who knows, Eremenko Sr might be at HJK next season.

The Jaro fans, however, will probably want to concentrate on the fact that right now, things look pretty good. Eremenko Jr is perhaps the best player in the league and, as always, there are a host of young talent (Nosh a Lody, Jani Bäckman, Sebastian Mannstöm and Tillman Grove) striving to fulfil their potential. The trouble is that since the balance on the team-sheet is keeling heavily on youth, there will be big differences between Jaro’s good and bad days. Also, as brilliant as Eremenko Jr can be, his individualism can become a problem in the long run if things go badly. Since there is a shortage of quality defensive players, attack is truly the best defence for Jaro.

Key man: Aleksei Eremenko Jr

One to watch: Jani Bäckman

Transfers:

In: Jani Bäckman and Nosh a Lody (Klubi 04), Aleksei Eremenko Jr and Venance Zeze (Metallist Kharkiv), Ymer Xhaferi (KF Trepca)

Out: Jonas Emet and Kristian Kojola (TamU), Mikko Hyyrynen (JJK), Jani Koivisto (FC Viikingit), Jens Portin (Gefle), Jani Tanska (VPS)

HJK

Estimation: 1-2

2009: Champions

Coach: Antti Muurinen

Captain: Ville Wallén

www.hjk.fi

The reigning champions have strengthened the squad during winter. HJK have finally managed to offload some dead wood (Jukka Sauso, Mikko Hauhia and Petri Oravainen) and brought in quality to replace them (Rafinha, Janne Saarinen and Peter Magnusson). Paulus Roiha’s departure, however, might come at a cost as HJK need a ball-playing front-man.

Last season’s title was achieved mostly by the excellence of a few individual players (namely Sebastian Sorsa, Dawda Bah, Ville Wallén and Aki Riihilahti). Because this season HJK have more match congestion due to the Champions League qualifiers, they must improve their team-playing to succeed in both competitions.

For a start, Muurinen needs to find a working forward-pairing with clearly defined roles (if he is to maintain the 4-4-2 formation), something he failed to do last season, to take advantage of the scoring potential he has at his disposal. Also, it is vital not to be too cautious especially at home and give the full-backs freedom to roam forward. The flanks are the key to HJK’s attacking play and if HJK are able to keep better possession of the ball, the quicksilvery wide men will prove to be deadly (especially the pairing of Sorsa and Rafinha on the right sounds unstoppable).

The midfield could use an attacking player but otherwise is solid and as hard as nails with Riihilahti, Saarinen, Cheyne Fowler and Medo providing the muscle. The signing of Peter Magnusson should add quality to the heart of HJK’s central defence but does not dispose of the need for a ball-playing centre-back. Once again Ville Wallén will be required to make one or two important saves almost in every game. HJK finally have a proper assistant coach in Juho Rantala. The former HJK player/ Klubi 04 coach should be able to instill some badly needed tactical acumen to HJK’s attacking play.

HJK will have it all to do to retain the title but the experience and leadership of the likes of Riihilahti, Saarinen and Wallén, as well as the cutting edge of Sorsa, Bah and Medo should be enough, just.

Key man: Ville Wallén

One to watch: Johannes Westö

Transfers:

In: Rafinha (TamU), Janne Saarinen (Häcken, SWE), Peter Magnusson (loan: Djurgårdens IF, SWE)

Out: Tuomas Haapala (TamU), Petri Oravainen (KuPS), Jukka Sauso (Jönköpings Södra, SWE), Mikko Hauhia (Akademisk Bollklub, DEN), Valeri Popovits (Ilves), Ville Taulo (Taranto, ITA), Paulus Roiha (Åtvidaberg, SWE)

IFK Mariehamn

Estimation: 3-6

Last season: 4th

Coach: Pekka Lyyski

Captain: Mika Niskala

www.ifkmariehamn.com

MIFK want to build on last season’s success. The signings of Mikko Paatelainen and Petteri Forsell should turn out to be fine pieces of business. The midfield has a lot of skill (Mika Niskala, Forsell, Ante Simunac and Tamas Gruborovics) so now MIFK need to find a steady scorer. Much will depend on Paatelainen since, although, showing glimpses of potential, Wilhelm Ingves’s and Sasha Anttilainen’s goalscoring records do not convince (MIFK scored a measly total of 30 goals last season and particularly Anttilainen’s tally of two goals in thirty-seven matches does not justify his big status).

Also, there are big defensive concerns. The departure of last season’s defensive leader Paulus Arajuuri left a huge crack in the centre but if Medoune Gueye is up to the task, the islanders have a slim chance of improving from last season.

Key man: Mika Niskala

One to watch: Petteri Forsell

Transfers:

In: Mikko Paatelainen (TPS), Petteri Forsell (VPS), Medoune Gueye (Entente SSG, FRA), Echiabhi Okodugha (RoPS)

Out: Paulus Arajuuri (Kalmar FF, SWE), Aleksandros Pappas

JJK

Estimation: 8-11

Last season: 13th

Coach: Kari Martonen

Captain: Mikko Hyyrynen

www.fcjjk.com

Last season JJK provided a prime example why there should be fewer teams in Veikkausliiga: poor football, desperate signings, financial insecurity, a lower-division stadium…the list goes on. This season, however, the people in Jyväskylä have a real reason to be proud of their team. And I’m not talking about footballing success here. JJK are now the epitome of a small Veikkausliiga club.

JJK seem to be thinking long-term in everything they do. Signing Mika Lehkosuo’s assistant Martonen, who is renowned for his work as a player-developer, was a master-stroke. The squad is now build brick by brick without cutting corners and all new JJK signings are extremely sensible, adding position based quality and experience to the squad: Mikko Hyyrynen provides leadership and goals up-front; Touko Tumanto adds dynamism and passing range to the midfield; and Juha Pasoja and Jarkko Okkonen bring needed stability to the defence.

Martonen has an ambitious playing philosophy but he is also too smart to think he can make JJK into a carbon-copy of Honka. Therefore, it would be rash to expect too much too soon from JJK.

Key man: Juha Pasoja

One to watch: Touko Tumanto

Transfers:

In: Mikko Hyyrynen (FF Jaro), Jarkko Okkonen (VaKP), Juha Pasoja (HamKam, NOR), Touko Tumanto (FC Inter)

Out: Georgi Hristov, Nam Ik Kyung (FC Haka), Toni Koskela, Lee Ho Jin

KuPS

Estimation: 13-14

Last season: 12th

Coach: Esa Pekonen

Captain: Pietari Holopainen

www.kups.fi

The personnel at KuPS has changed a great deal but the squad has not necessarily weakened. This is no cause for celebration for KuPS fans, though, since KuPS were already quite poor last term. Dickson Nwakaeme has been touted by many to be the best player in Veikkausliiga. If this is so, what on earth is he doing at KuPS? Be that as it may, the whole of Kuopio will be looking to the Nigerian to steer KuPS to safety.

If relegation is to be avoided, Pekonen needs to get the best out of his attacking players (Dickson, Ilja Venäläinen and Petri Oravainen) because KuPS are desperately short of quality on every other department. From the first five matches, KuPS plays five at home. Should they fail to get a reasonable amount of points from these games, their chances of staying up will be close to non-existent.

Key man: Dickson Nwakaeme

One to watch: Petri Oravainen

Transfers:

In: Petri Oravainen (HJK), Pietari Holopainen (Haka), Samuli Kaivonurmi (Warkaus JK), Juho Nykänen (FC KooTeePee), Petteri Rönkkö (Jippo), Mikko Vilmunen (Alta, NOR), Olajide Williams

Out: Jani Hartikainen (retired?), Ville Iiskola (FC KooTeePee), Pele Koljonen (MyPa), Tuomas Kuparinen (FC KooTeePee), Jussi-Pekka Savolainen (VPS), Janne Reinikainen (MP)

MyPa

Estimation: 5-8

2009: 9th

Coach: Janne Lindberg

Captain: Tuomas Aho

www.mypa.fi

The MyPa fans have a cause for cautious optimism, something that hasn’t been the case in Anjalankoski for a few years. MyPa have made a couple of good signings (Pele Koljonen and Konsta Hietanen) and have a decent (if narrow) squad. The steady quality throughout the team and Lindberg’s no-nonsense football will keep MyPa far away from bottom-half trouble but won’t be enough to lift the 2005 champions to the top three. MyPa will have a consistent if a bit flavourless season.

Key man: Antti Okkonen

One to watch: Pele Koljonen

Transfers:

In: Kim Alonen (TPS), Konsta Hietanen (FC Lahti), Pele Koljonen (KuPS)

Out: Toni Huttunen (retired), Tuomo Könönen (PS Kemi), Saku Puhakainen (retired)

TamU

Estimation: 6-10

Last season: 7th

Coach: Ari Hjelm

Captain: Mikko Kavén

www.tampereunited.com

TamU are a bit of a paradox. They have a crop of good players who have had little to show for their talent. Underachievers such as Aleksei Kangaskolkka, Jonne Hjelm, Antti Pohja and Tomi Petrescu really should do better. It seems Ari Hjelm is only capable of cashing in on the potential of utility players such as Vili Savolainen and Sakari Saarinen, which, of course, is in line with Hjelm’s footballing identity.

Hjelm prefers a pragmatic approach which is more apt to strangle the potential from individuals than nurture them to full blossom. Hjelm is what one might call a winning coach but because TamU’s momentum as a Finnish footballing power is long gone, Hjelm might simply be the wrong coach for a club in the process of renovation.

The squad is decent but unbalanced and the signings for this season do not convince. Tuomas Haapala is a good all-action midfielder but not the leader TamU’s midfield sorely needs. Jonas Emet and Kristian Kojola will add little if anything to the team. Henri Myntti might come handy and even score a couple of goals (from set-pieces) but will not get the hearts of TamU fans racing.

This season perhaps won’t bring success but will provide a chance to turn the proverbial page in Tampere where the atmosphere has been poisoned by constant infighting and financial meltdowns. TamU, therefore, should take 2010 as year one and get their act together as a football club and not worry that much about the results on the pitch.

Key man: Mikko Kavén

One to watch: Jusu Karvonen

Transfers:

In: Jonas Emet and Kristian Kojola (FF Jaro), Tuomas Haapala (HJK), Jari Nikkilä (Haka), Dema (PoPa)

Out: Henri Scheweleff (Ilves), Rafinha (HJK)

TPS

Estimation: 3-6

2009: 3rd

Coach: Marko Rajamäki

Captain: Jarno Heinikangas

fc.tps.fi

Never a dull season in the black and white side of Turku. The era of big-name coaches and big-spending is gone and its back to the future with TPS in 2010. ‘Tepsi’ has a young and interesting squad brimming with potential but the end product will not yet be harvested this season.

TPS have made some decent signings but not even the impact of Jonatan Johansson will cover the departures of Wayne Brown and Kasper Hämäläinen. There is a ridiculous amount of speed and individual skill in attack but the defence and centre-midfield are simply not good enough to provide a platform from which to launch a proper challenge for the title.

Riku Riski, Mika Ääritalo, Mikko Manninen, Jani Virtanen, Johansson and Babatunde Wusu should provide the goals, pace and entertainment, providing that rookie coach Rajamäki strikes a tactical balance. With the widest array wingers at his disposal, Rajamäki should keep on using Pasi Rautiainen’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation and play fast counter-attacking football. Rajamäki might, however, play it safe and go for a plain 4-4-2. Whatever formation Rajamäki ends up using, there are two crucial questions he must answer: how two keep balance in midfield and how to exploit the potential of the attacking players? Johansson role is crucial here and there is a possibility that the 34-year-old becomes a blessing in disguise unless Rajamäki finds a functioning system with which to accommodate him (or then ‘Tintti’ will just go and score fifteen goals for TPS).

From individual players, Mika Ääritalo, after a injury-infested last season, and Riku Riski will finally get the chance to shine. If Ääritalo stays fit, he is capable of scoring double-figures. Virtanen is also one to keep an eye on. The Finland U21 player Toni Kolehmainen, on the other hand, will struggle to fill Hämäläinen’s shoes. Therefore, it’s up to Fulham-loanee Robert Milsom to marshal the midfield if TPS are to keep their top three status.

Key man: Jukka Lehtovaara

One to watch: Mika Ääritalo

Transfers:

In: Toni Kolehmainen (AC Oulu), Jonatan Johansson, Robert Milsom (loan: Fulham, ENG), Henrik Moisander (VPS), Jani Virtanen (Himki, RUS)

Out: Iiro Aalto (Pallo-Iirot), Wayne Brown (loan ended: Fulham, ENG), Kasper Hämäläinen (Djurgårdens IF, SWE), Mikko Paatelainen (IFK Mariehamn), Simo Valakari (retired)

VPS

Estimation: 10-13

Last season: 8th

Coach: Tommi Pikkarainen

Captain: Tero Koskela

www.vepsu.fi

On the one hand, VPS are able to concentrate on on-filed matters after last season’s off-field soap opera. On the other, the departures of Jani Lyyski and Henri Sillanpää, two of their best and most influential players, will take their toll. VPS have been busy in the transfer market but quality has largely been replaced with quantity and if worse comes to worst, they will have a relegation battle on their hands in Vaasa.

Pikkarainen has a wide selection of attacking options available (Valtter Laaksonen, Antonio Inutile, Jussi Aalto, Arttu Seppälä and Kim Böling) but what he lacks is a natural centre-forward capable of scoring regularly. The centre-midfield, however, looks solid with Jyri Hietaharju pulling the strings.

Key man: Jyri Hietaharju

One to watch: Valtter Laaksonen

Transfers:

In: Kim Böling (Närpes Kraft), Nam Ik-Kyung (RoPS), Eetu Kaipio (Klubi 04), Valtter Laaksonen (Sogndal, NOR), Alessandro Marzuolin (PFC Marek Dupnitsa, BUL), Brian Pope (VIFK), Jussi-Pekka Savolainen (KuPS), Sami Salmi (Klubi 04), Arttu Seppälä (FC Inter) and Jani Tanska (FF Jaro)

Out: Jan Ahlvik (VIFK), Petteri Forsell (IFK Mariehamn), Jani Lyyski (Djurgårdens IF, SWE), Henri Sillanpää (GAIS, SWE)

Veikkausliiga 2010 top three: 1. HJK; 2. FC Honka; 3. FC Inter

Relegated: KuPS