Veikkausliiga already kicked off a few weeks ago, but I Went for the Ball!’s season guide arrives late (as usual). But let’s not allow that insignificant detail put us off since, despite the first rounds offering some surprises, there are still almost 30 matches to be played, which means that the league’s power balance will even itself out in the end. So, better late than even later, here we go for another season of Veikkausliiga football.
1. HJK: reconstruction begins after last season‘s dominance
Expect them to…be nowhere near as dominant and free-flowing as last season but still win the title due to the quality in the squad.
Strength: Variety in attack both in terms of numbers and player types should allow coach Antti Muurinen to pick the right players for the right occasion. Experienced defence that has been together for a long time.
Weakness: New centre-midfield with not enough penetration and dynamism. The use of one-dimensional Juho Mäkelä upfront will inevitably strip HJK off their attacking fluidity.
Expect great things from…the striking sensation Joel Pohjanpalo who scored 33 goals in 23 Finnish 2nd division matches last season for HJK’s reserves. Also, he recently turned down a contract offer from Liverpool. The 17-year-old has a rare, insatiable hunger for goals (added with the actual skill and vision to score them).
Expect little from…returnee forward Juho Mäkelä who will score a few goals but still be more a hindrance than an actual asset to HJK.
2. FC Inter: will give HJK a run for their money, but get left behind on home stretch
Expect them to…really challenge HJK this season but fall short due to a lack of depth in the squad.
Strength: Inter’s starting eleven is nearly as good as HJK’s, and their playing style is instilled in the DNA of the squad’s core.
Weakness: There remains a huge quality gap between the XI and bench. Especially if key members like Mika Ojala and Iraklis Siribladze get injured Inter will struggle. Job Dragtsma is undeniably a fine coach but his performance in the transfer market is less than impressive: for every find like Jos Hooiveld, the Dutchman has dragged in busloads of useless players (Guillano Grot or Daniel Osinachi, anyone?). The jury’s still out on the current lot, but Pim Bouwman does seem like the real deal (then again, Guy Gnabouyou doesn’t).
Expect great things from…dead-ball specialist Mika Ojala who will again score a tidy number of goals and assist (15+19 in 2011) and should get the next flight out of Turku if he is to further his career.
Expect little from…the strikers on the bench.
3. TPS: will to make a claim, but know own limitations
Expect them to…play balanced, safety-first football and keep the Turku title and European spot as priorities in the absence of any real chance of mounting on a championship challenge.
Strength: TPS can rely on their solid defence and having the best keeper in the league to get them through any forthcoming hard times. The Turku team are capable of playing through the middle with variety and in Toni Kolehmainen they have a clean, stylish deep-lying playmaker.
Weakness: Like their city rivals, TPS lack depth in the squad. The wide areas are another concern as, with Mika Ääritalo and Petteri Pennanen playing more centrally, only full-back Sami Rähmönen provides reliable penetration out wide.
Expect great things from…keeper Jukka Lehtovaara who would (and perhaps still should) be Finland’s No1 had he not suffered from constant injuries in the past.
Expect little from…coach Marko Rajamäki who has a decent enough XI in his hands, but may not have the required tactical ability to create a successful style for them.
4. JJK: potential is ripe for the picking
Expect them to…be perhaps the most entertaining team in the league, ripping defences apart with quick counters time and again. However, the Jyväskylä team will also concede plenty.
Strength: A versatile attacking third packed with pace, skill and power is supported by a balanced, combative midfield. Speed-merchants Jani Virtanen and Mikko Manninen will pose any Veikkausliiga defence problems.
Weakness: Coach Kari Martonen needs to find a better playing balance to shore a weak defence. A too impulsive attacking intent would be JJK’s downfall as oppositions are a year wiser in how to play against them.
Expect great things from…former Udinese winger Jani Virtanen who will try to find consistency to complement the spectacular.
Expect little from…a shaky defence that shipped in 32 goals in away games last season.
5. FC Honka: more of the same, just with poorer results
Expect them to…once again show that a well-defined playing identity is more important than the individuals on the pitch. As years go by, the Honka players keep getting younger.
Strength: Mika Lehkosuo has done a great job in creating a clear style of play while at the same time making player development a priority. This will again be the reason (and the only reason) for any possible success in the absence players.
Weakness: With not enough bona fide experience, the young squad will struggle in times of trouble. The experienced players such as Jussi Vasara and Tomi Petrescu are no leaders of men.
Expect great things from…midfield destroyer Duarte Tammilehto who will look to build his name with something more than just bookings this term.
Expect little from…Honka’s home advantage as the Espoo team suffer from the worst kind of good weather supporters.
6. VPS: too early for a true VPS renaissance, but on the right track
Expect them to…score some goals after being a substitute for sleeping pills for a few seasons.
Strength: The Vaasa team may have played some boring football in recent years, but they definitely have kept their balance book healthy (actually being one of the few Finnish teams turning a profit). This has given VPS the means to start building a balanced and positively functional team. The reliable Olli Huttunen seems like the right fit as new coach.
Weakness: VPS lack the cutting-edge in the attacking third. Jarno Parikka definitely has qualities, but the former HJK striker is also suffering from the worst case of misplaced goalscoring shoes.
Expect great things from…the whole team that look to gradually consolidate themselves as a club to be taken seriously again.
Expect little from…a defence that lacks quality on every position.
7. IFK Mariehamn: more balanced but too predictable
Expect them to… play a lukewarm season now that the team is built around a core of experienced Veikkausliiga players.
Strength: The middle channel (Jani Lyyski-Mika Niskala-Petteri Forsell-Aleksei Kangaskolkka) looks strong and should be one of the most consistent in the league.
Weakness: If leading players suffer injuries, there are little options on the bench. Also, wide areas lack penetration.
Expect great things from…attacking midfield Forsell who has the skill for the unexpected but needs to start applying himself more to the basic rigours of the game in order to dominate matches.
Expect little from…MIFK’s bench.
8. KuPS: trying to reinvent the cogs in their cogwheel
Expect them to…try to reinvent themselves as a ball-playing team after years of travelling on route one.
Strength: The defence should provide a solid enough platform on which to build on, but their ability to open play will be the key question if KuPS aim to keep the ball on the deck.
Weakness: Esa Pekonen has done a decent job in Kuopio, but the no-nonsense coach must learn fast to be able to teach new tricks to a squad uncomfortable in passing the ball.
Expect great things from…the team’s workmanship attitude.
Expect little from…KuPS consistency as the team is not built to cope with the extra burden of European football.
9. Haka: talented coach, untalented squad
Expect them to…build on a surprisingly good last season and stay clear of relegation battle.
Strength: The coach Sami Ristilä has been able to instil confidence and create a functioning, straightforward playing style into a team lacking quality on every department.
Weakness: The team overachieved last season so a poor start could spell potential disaster. The leading players such as Dema and Shane Robinson must carry the team.
Expect great things from…Ristilä who, with his hands-on, open-minded mentality, is one of the brightest coaching prospects in Finland.
Expect little from…former ManU trainee and Honka man Jami Puustinen who, with limited basic playing skills, is not the leading forward Haka are seeking.
10. MyPa: a good coach and the right mentality go a long way
Expect them to…be everyone’s favourites to go down, but perhaps exactly for that reason stay up. Call it blowing IWFTB’s own trumpet, but this blog believed in MyPa last season and believes in them again.
Strength: The coach Toni Korkeakunnas provided a small miracle by guiding MyPa to eight in 2011, and this season they begin from a similar starting point. There is still really no reason why they should necessarily go down. The squad has players with potential but also with all to prove at Veikkausliiga level. Add that with the ‘us against them’ mentality instilled by the coach (after all of the media and fellow players and coaches have labelled them relegation favourites) and you’ve got yourself a receipt for success (well, escape anyway). With small margins in the lower reaches of the league, MyPa know that they only need to keep one team below them. And that they are capable of doing.
Weakness: MyPa has the weakest starting line-up on paper in the league (and the bench doesn’t look any better by comparison) so Korkeakunnas really needs to exploit every bit of potential in the team.
Expect great things from…the classical small man-big man strike partnership of Pekka Sihvola (one of the most underrated players in the league) and Riley O’Neill.
Expect little from…the substitute forwards.
11. FC Lahti: the idealists are shooting themselves in the foot
Expect them to…play idealistic passing football that will earn them admirers but guarantee inconsistency.
Strength: The midfield has plenty of ball-playing skill and enough potential for penetration as well, which should mean that Lahti have the ability to practise what they preach.
Weakness: Coach Tommi Kautonen’s idealism shows in the fact that Lahti lack muscle in crucial areas of the pitch. Skill is a good substitute for power providing that you have balance. Lahti, however, does not have it.
Expect great things from…Lahti’s belief in their ideology (but idealism is hardly synonymous with success).
Expect little from…their collective defending with little blue-collar attitude in the team.
12. FF Jaro: attacking football doesn’t work if you don’t know how to defend
Expect them to…play possession football and dominate games. They will, however, also concede goals at will (and go down because of that).
Strength: Jaro’s clear playing identity.
Weakness: Alexei Eremenko Sr. is perhaps the most overrated coach in the league. Granted, the Jaro legend is able to teach players in the art of attacking, but totally lacks the ability (or will) to make them play comprehensive, balanced football that starts with organization at the back. The mental weakness of the team shows as petulance and lack of self-belief when they concede in matches they control.
Expect great things from…17-year-old attacking midfielder Simon Skrabb who already showed glimpses of his game changing ability last season.
Expect little from…Jaro’s defending, both collective and position-specific.