After months of media coverage going from bad to worse, comedy management at club level, and financial turmoil of every sort, we finally get back to business as the 2011 Veikkausliiga season kicks-off (to be exact, kicked-off last week, but IWFTB promises to resist the temptation to alter its definitive season guide). I won’t bore you with all the pre-season business, suffice to say that Veikkausliiga is now played with twelve teams (after AC Oulu and TamU were kicked out) and every team plays three times against every other team (twice at home against some and twice away against others). The total of matches for each club will, therefore, be 33. This will most definitely please the fans and create a better platform for player development because, due to the congested schedule, teams must rotate their skinny squads more in order to get through the season. This will, however, not add to the competitiveness of the league as the new format is prone to widen the gap between the big, with a deeper pool of players and deeper pockets, and small clubs. You can’t have your cake and eat it, so let’s simply be merry in the knowledge that at least the football finally starts.
This being said, let’s go down to the actual business at hand and evaluate all twelve Veikkausliiga teams and their chances in 2011 (the clubs are listed below in terms of their final estimated position in the table as evaluated by the ever, ehm, infallible I Went for the Ball!).
1. HJK: Superior squad, wealth of experience and, at last, a complete package
HJK are hands-down the biggest candidate for the title. Not only because they’ve won back-to-back championships in the last two seasons. Not only because they have the best squad in the league by every standard. Not only because they have strengthened from last season due to new signings and due to the fact that the young players (Juhani Ojala, Teemu Pukki, Mikko Sumusalo, Akseli Pelvas and Alexander Ring) are a year older. Nor because they have Jari Litmanen on board. But because Antti Muurinen and Juho Rantala finally have a complete package (first eleven and substitutes) to work with. As opposed to the HJK squad from last season, the current player material allows more tactical manoeuvring which will be even more necessary in the new league format. The fact that there is an extra seven matches to be played only makes HJK stronger.
Berat Sadik’s (FC Lahti) arrival will mean that ‘Klubi’ have a striker who can realise the potential of their strategy. Juho Mäkelä’s (FC Sydney) goals (16 last season) will be missed, but now HJK have a striker who has the necessary footballing sensibilities and attributes to complete their attacking puzzle. Rami Hakanpää (FC Honka) will add steel to an already strong centre defence and will especially provide ball-playing prowess at the back. As a player with a long history with injuries, the 32-year-old was not signed to play week in week out in the league, but because as a former midfielder he will provide HJK’s defence with the ball-playing qualities they sorely lacked in the Champions League/Europa League qualifiers last season. And this brings us to the matter of Litmanen. At 40, ‘Litti’ will definitely not feature in every single match but is expected to deliver at the crucial stages during the season. Like with Aki Riihilahti and Hakanpää, Litmanen’s skills and experience will be needed most in the European matches. HJK are ready for a busy season on all fronts.
Key player: Berat Sadik (A)
One to watch: Alexander Ring (M)
IN: Rami Hakanpää (FC Honka), Jari Litmanen (FC Lahti), Sebastian Mannström (FF Jaro), Berat Sadik (FC Lahti); OUT: Pyry Kärkkäinen (KuPS), Peter Magnusson (Sandefjord, NOR), Juho Mäkelä (FC Sydney), Johannes Westö (time off from football, travelling the world).
2. FC Honka: The nearly men look stronger this year
After a poor last season, when Honka surrendered their arms in the autumn just when they were supposed to head out all guns blazing, Honka reacted quickly (and quietly) by making a few surgical signings. After Tomi Maanoja’s arrival from AIK, Honka will finally have an undisputed number one in goal (Maanoja was subsequently made captain). Before, Honka have had plenty of skilful midfielders but few natural wide players. Ilari Aijälä (MyPa) will give Honka a steady-going winger with a deft cross and dead ball venom. It must have been frustrating for coach Mika Lehkosuo to watch Aleksander Kokko (now at VPS) and Jami Puustinen disappoint year after year, but now Lehkosuo hopes he has finally found a goalscorer in Dudu (9 in 10 matches last season at KuPS) who should actually also be able to play a bit of football. Apart from Rami Hakanpää (HJK), the departures will hardly be missed. The young products of the Honka youth academy are now a year older and Lehkosuo will be looking for players like Rasmus Sculler, Juuso Simpanen, Jaakko Lepola and Demba Savage to step up their game and deliver on their huge promise. Close but no cigar for Honka, though. Again.
One to watch: Tim Väyrynen (A)
Key player: Tomi Maanoja (A)
IN: Dudu (KuPS), Tomi Maanoja (AIK, SWE), Lum Rexhapi and Duarte Tammilehto (Klubi 04), Ilari Äijälä (MyPa); OUT: Rami Hakanpää (HJK), Janne Henriksson and Ville Koskimaa (VPS), Markus Paatelainen (MIFK), John Weckström (FC Haka)
3. FC Inter: Genuine title challengers. Or are they really?
Inter have been touted by many as HJK’s strongest title challengers. IWFTB is not that convinced however. Most likely Inter will be thereabouts, but more due to the inability of other big teams to throw their punches. If things go according to plan for the Turku team (like in the title year in 2008), they may just be able to stake their claim. The last two seasons have shown, however, that, despite Job Dragtsma’s best laid plans, they seldom do that at Inter.
Inter have a versatile squad, options on the bench and a decent amount of quality. Nevertheless, there still remains too many question marks: will Timo Furuholm stay fit; is Domagoj Abramovic as good as in 2008; are the Argentinians up to scratch this time around? Fortunately for Inter, with the arrivals of Magnus Bahne in goal and Kalle Parviainen in the centre, the defence looks their strongest area. This will give Dragtsma time to build his team into a coherent whole if things don’t click at the word go.
One to watch: Tero Mäntylä
Key player: Timo Furuholm
IN: Maximiliano Asis and Federico Scoppa (LDU de Loja, ECU), Domagoj Abramovic (Pierikos, GRE), Magnus Bahne (Assyriska FF, SWE), Kalle Parviainen (Haka); OUT: Daniel Antunez (Tecos, MEX), Patrick Bantamoi (Telstar, HOL), Guillermo Grot (De Treffes, HOL), Kennedy Nwanganga (KRC Genk, BEL)
4. TPS: Excellent first eleven, slender bench
After the crazy years (that saw some big spending and three big name coaches in Mixu Paatelainen, Martti Kuusela and Pasi Rautiainen come and go) in the white and black side of Turku, TPS, with Marko Rajamäki as coach, are no more looking for an easy, expensive quick-fix. Nowadays, gradual development is all the rage at TPS as they aim to bring in quality youth prospects through their own youth set-up or from elsewhere.
This season’s hot prospects include Petteri Pennanen (Twente) and Juho Lehtonen (PoPa). Added to these arrivals, TPS signed two attackers with Finnish national team experience in Njazi Kuqi (Dundee FC) and Niklas Tarvajärvi (loan: Karlsruher SC), as well as full-back Jarkko Hurme (AC Oulu). Despite the fact that neither Kuqi nor Tarvajärvi is a clinical finisher and even though both will probably need a few weeks to get into full fitness, they should become key players for TPS’s inexperienced attack that has been devoid of the likes of Roope and Riku Riski (Cesena and Widez Lodz respectively) and Jonathan Johansson (retired).
One to watch: Juho Lehtonen (A)
Key player: Jukka Lehtovaara (G)
IN: Jarkko Hurme (AC Oulu), Njazi Kuqi (Dundee FC, SCO), Juho Lehtonen (PoPa), Floribert N’Galula (Wedel TSV, GER), Petteri Pennanen (Twente, HOL), Niklas Tarvajärvi (Karlsruher SC, GER); OUT: Chris Cleaver (SJK), Jonathan Johansson (retired), Igor Jovanovic (SV Babelsberg, GER), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (JJK), Robert Milsom (Fulham, ENG), Riku Riski (Widez Lodz, POL), Roope Riski (AC Cesena, ITA)
5. KuPS: Last season’s sensation is followed by stability
If you asked most so called experts (yours truly being no exception) before the start of last season that how will KuPS fare, the reply was that they are destined for the drop and Esa Pekonen is the first coach to get the chop. But what happened after the actual football started and the talking stopped? After KuPS’s 5-0 home trashing at the hands of HJK, the Kuopio club went from strength to strength and ended up in second spot in the league.
Although it will be difficult for KuPS to repeat last season’s heroics and despite added fixture congestion caused by the European matches, KuPS can look forward to establishing themselves as a top six club in the league. There’s more width in the squad but still not enough true quality to retain a top three finish. Dudu’s departure to Honka will be a huge loss both in terms of goals and overall attacking play, but Dickson Nwakaeme return after an underwhelming stint in Denmark should provide a boost to KuPS’s attack. Pekonen has been able to construct an industrious team in his own no-nonsense image and after signing defenders Pyry Kärkkäinen (HJK via AC Oulu) and Markus Joenmäki (Haka), he will look for his defence to provide the springboard for more success.
One to watch: Aleksi Paananen (M)
Key player: Ilja Venäläinen (A)
IN: Markus Joenmäki (Haka), Pyry Kärkkäinen (AC Oulu), Dickson Nwakaeme (Aab, DEN); OUT: Dudu (FC Honka)
6. JJK: They can sure talk the talk, now it’s high time to walk the walk
JJK have escaped the drop by the skin of their teeth in the last two seasons. Now they finally have a team with which to succeed in Veikkausliiga and fulfil Kari Martonen’s ambitious, proactive strategy.
JJK have splashed the cash to back up their bullish talk of a top three finish. They brought in four quality players in Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS) and Tamas Gruborovics (MIFK). Korte is an industrious, complete midfielder. Manninen is expected to provide dynamism and ideas in their attacking play. Wusu is there to score the goals and Gruborovics to provide versatility and creativity in the attacking third.
Manninen, Gruborovics, Wusu and last season’s arrival Jani Virtanen might prove to be one of the most entertaining and effective attacking collectives this season. The Jyväskylä club also have a decent bench this season which will be a vital asset. JJK have a good team that may challenge for a top three finish in the future, but, for now, there’s still too much ground to cover between being a club teetering on the brink of relegation to the top of Veikkausliiga.
One to watch: Jani Virtanen (M)
Key player: Janne Korhonen (G)
IN: Tamas Gruborovics (MIFK), Eero Korte (FC Lahti), Mikko Manninen and Babatunde Wusu (both from TPS); OUT: Kim Alonen, Mika Lahtinen and Zakaria Abahassine (all RoPS), Matti Lähitie and Christian Sund (both SJK), Jukka Sinisalo (FC Lahti)
7. IFK Mariehamn: Back to form in 2011?
The usual MIFK transfer merry-go-round lasted until the final days before the start of the season as an influx of former TamU players (Kristian Kojola, Jonas Emet and Aleksei Kangaskolkka) took the boat ride to Maarianhamina. In total, no less than twelve new players arrived while thirteen left the club. Once the fresh faces settle in, Pekka Lyyski actually has a pretty decent squad at his disposal. Six of the arrivals have Veikkausliiga experience while the rest are an assorted, international bunch.
As always, it’s difficult to know what to expect from the island club but this is an interesting team that should certainly have enough quality to keep all relegation nightmares at bay. Who knows, this just might be their year.
Last season: 12th
One to watch: Petteri Forsell (M)
Key player: Toni Lehtinen (A)
IN: Kristian Kojola, Jonas Emet and Aleksei Kangaskolkka (all TamU), Josh Wicks (DC United, USA), Fernando De Abreu (Olympiakos Nikosia, CYP), Allen Olesen (Haugesund, NOR), Luca Bellisomo (Vancouver, CAN), Hendrik Helmke (Lubeck, GER), Markus Paatelainen (FC Honka), Toni Lehtinen (FC Haka); OUT: Tamas Gruborovics (JJK), Mika Niskala (Alta IF, NOR), Patrik Rikama (GIF Sundsvall, SWE), Sasha Anttilainen (MyPa)
8. VPS: A bit flavourless perhaps, but a balanced team
VPS are in many respects a model small Veikkausliiga club. They do not try to punch above their weight (any more at least). They keep the balance books healthy. And they are a team that plays to their strengths. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t tick the box in their model club CV is that their youth set-up is a bit rubbish.
Last season VPS were comfortably 10th but they managed a paltry 29 goals (only relegated FC Lahti scored less). And this is a problem coach Tommi Pikkarainen has tried to address by signing trouble-child Aleksandr Kokko (PoPa). The 23-year-old was top scorer way back in 2008 and pretty much stopped trying after that achievement. Kokko is able to score goals, if only he’d bothered to put in the effort. VPS may be happier keeping Valtter Laaksonen (injured for most of last season) fit.
VPS have a balanced team with no real weak points and even some options on the bench. Therefore, this should be a steady if an unspectacular season in Vaasa. At the moment, that is perhaps exactly what they aim at.
One to watch: Kim Böling (A)
Key player: Janne Henriksson (G)
IN: Tomer Chencinski (Harrisburg City Islanders, USA), Ville Koskimaa and Janne Henriksson (both FC Honka), Aleksandr Kokko and Paco Corr (both PoPa), Riku Heini (FC Lahti), Antti Uimaniemi (MyPa); OUT: Jussi Aalto (FF Jaro), Pekka Kainu (OPS)
9. FF Jaro: One of the best coaches in Veikkausliiga, but too many loose ends in the team
Jaro ended last season in fifth, which is quite a feat for a club of Jaro’s size. This was pretty much down to the brilliance of two Eremenkos: Aleksei in the dug-out and Aleksei Jr. on the pitch. Now, the latter is gone and he took with him most of Jaro’s attacking venom. Venance Zeze, Papa Niang, and Jussi Aalto have good attacking qualities but they are unable to carry the team like Aleksei Jr. did. Added to the departure of ‘Junior’, Jaro lost two attacking midfielders important to Eremenko’s plans in Sebastian Mannström (HJK) and Ymer Xhaferi (FK Ranova).
Despite all this, Eremenko will try to make the team play according to his vision: balanced, proactive football (with emphasis on the latter). This will work at times, especially as the season progresses, but Jaro’s chances of repeating last season’s fifth spot look pretty slim.
One to watch: Simon Skrabb (M)
Key player: Venance Zeze (A)
IN: Sergii Shpak (TsSKA Kiev, UKR), Ilja Vaganov (JBK), Dickson Agyeman (RAEC Mons, BEL), Patrik Bykskata (KPV), Giorgi Khidesheli (Baia Zugdidi, GEO), Mattias Wargh (IFK Jakobstad), Jussi Aalto (VPS); OUT: Jani Bäckman (FC Lahti), Sebastian Mannström (HJK), Ymer Xhaferi (FK Ranova, MAC), Marco Matrone (FC Haka)
10. MyPa: Reconstruction underway in Anjalankoski
As the cash flow from the paper factory down the road from Saviniemi stadium wither to being non-existent, the year 2005, when MyPa won the championship, seems like from a different age altogether. And in a way it is. The age of industrial magnates/teams supported by strong local industries is gone and MyPa have to get accustomed to a new life and new status without money.
Hats off to MyPa then since they have wasted no time doing exactly this. After an non-enjoyable last term with MyPa legend Janne Lindström at the helm, MyPa took up a new, bold direction by hiring former FC Viikingit coach Toni Korkeakunnas. Korkeakunnas, at 42, has little Veikkausliiga experience as coach and none as a player.
With little money at his disposal, Korkeakunnas deserves credit for being able to assemble a believable team with a completely new look. He left no stone unturned in Ykkönen (the Finnish first division) as he scoured for potential young players and even signed a young Tottenham pair on loan (Jake Nicholson and Kudus Oyenuga). MyPa’s opening lineup is of a good Veikkausliiga standard, but there aren’t too many choices on the bench. However, if the new arrivals deliver, MyPa may have the potential to surprise a few people.
One to watch: Eetu Kaipio (M)
Key player: Antti Okkonen (M)
IN: Niko Kukka (AC Oulu), Tommi Vesala and Eetu Kaipio (FC Viikingit), Mikko Innanen (FC Haka), Jake Nicholson and Kudus Oyenuga (on loan: Tottenham, ENG), David Ramadingaye (HJK), Sasha Anttilainen (MIFK), Riley O’Neill (Wilhelmshaven, GER); OUT: Antti Uimaniemi (VPS), Jarno Tuunainen (PK-35), Ilari Äijälä (FC Honka), Tosaint Ricketts (FC Timisoara, ROM)
11. FC Haka: Going, going…
Haka fans will thank their lucky stars if there are two (although they’ll probably settle for one) teams below them in the table when the season ends since this is the worst Haka team in years (perhaps ever). Coach Sami Ristilä will need to deplete his whole idea bank if he is to get something more out of this inexperienced team than simply a narrow escape from relegation.
Ristilä wants his team to play active football, but without players of true quality Haka will do better just by trying to shut up shop and to smash and grab whatever they can, whenever they can. With little ball-playing quality in midfield and in the absence of a sure-fire goalscorer, a counter-attacking strategy will serve the team best. Pekka Sihvola and Obi Metzger, as the probable first choices up-front, won’t offer much in terms of possession football but are decent attackers on the counter.
With a slim squad, Haka will suffer due to the requirements of the new fixture list. Also, they lost a total of 1001 matches of Veikkausliiga experience during the summer and this is bound to show during the long season.
One to watch: Sasha Popovitsh (M)
Key player: Regillio Nooitmeer (D)
IN: Marco Matrone (FF Jaro), Juha Pirinen (TamU), Shane Robinson (Stirling Lions SC, AUS), Albert Kuqi and Obi Metzger (FC Viikingit), Pekka Sihvola (FC Lahti); OUT: Xhevdet Gela (PK-35), Mikko Innanen (MyPa), Markus Joenmäki (KuPS), Jani Kuppila (AC Oulu), Toni Lehtinen (MIFK), Kalle Parviainen (FC Inter), Toni Kuivasto
12. RoPS: Everyone’s second favourite team this season will have to work wonders to avoid the drop
The best way forward for RoPS might be to take a step backwards and start afresh, even if it means playing in the Finnish division one next season (after all, they’ve done it all before).
A total of nine players from last season are under investigation of match-fixing and subsequently thrown out of the team. Because of this RoPS had to start gathering players from wherever they could find them. Now they are at least ready to start the campaign with an ensemble of inexperienced youth teamers, out of contract fringe Veikkausliiga players and a few foreign imports.
The squad is not wholly devoid of quality, however: Eetu Muinonen and Mika Hänninen (assuming that he regains match fitness after losing two seasons due to injury) can provide stability and creativity in midfield. Zakaria Abahassine and Jose Manuel Rivera bring options to the attacking third and Mika Lahtinen can score a few goals if the service is there. Also, these are players (not including Veikkausliiga newcomer Rivera) who have everything to prove after spending a couple of seasons under the Veikkausliiga radar.
Most likely there will be no celebrations in Rovaniemi when the season ends, but the RoPS fans will probably be content just to be able to concentrate on watching football after all the pre-season business.
2010: division one winners
One to watch: Eetu Muinonen (M)
Key player: Mika Lahtinen (A)
IN: Jaakko Isteri and Tuomo Könönen (PS Kemi), Thomas Götzl (SC Wacker Burghausen, GER), Mika Lahtinen, Kim Alonen and Zakaria Abahassine (JJK), Ville Syväjärvi (FC Santa Claus), Eetu Muinonen (MP), Shpat Qerimi (RNK Split, CRO), Jose Manuel Rivera (Deportivo Guamúchil, MEX), Mika Hänninen (AC Oulu); OUT: Jukka Santala (FC KooTeePee), nine players thrown out of the team due to being under investigation of match-fixing