I Went For the Ball! names five leading players for the Veikkausliiga 2012 season. The players represent both established names in the Finnish scene as well as talents who should reap their potential this season and go on to even greater things.
Jukka Lehtovaara; Club: TPS; Veikkausliiga appearances/goals: 112/0; Year of birth: 1988
Jukka Lehtovaara has been one of the most highly rated goalkeepers in Finland for the best part of a half a decade and already at 24 is one of the most experienced in the league. With Finnish national team being without a safe pair of hands after Jussi Jääskeläinen’s retirement, Lehtovaara should be the obvious pick. Constant injuries, however, have limited his chances both in the national team as well as in terms of breaking into bigger European arenas. Although still relatively young for a keeper, the TPS man’s chances of leaving for better things grow thinner each year, and the current campaign begins to be a make or break season if he is to transfer to somewhere more glamorous than Sweden or Norway. Know for his fast reflexes, Lehtovaara is a much more well-rounded keeper than often given credit for and the best that Veikkausliiga has to offer.
Jarkko Hurme; TPS; 74/1; 1986
Jarkko Hurme left for Udinese at a young age in 2006, but after three unsuccessful seasons spent in Italy the former Finnish U21 full-back returned to Finland to get his career back on track. A highly physical full-back/centre-back with pace, strength and skill on the ball, Hurme was one of the few defenders in the Finnish league who was able to back-pocket former HJK winger Dawda Bah at his prime. Will most likely start the season at left-back but would perhaps benefit the team more in a central role. At 25 time is starting to run out on Hurme in terms of making it into the big European leagues, but, due to a chronic lack of full-backs, he may still feature in Finland coach Mixu Paatelainen’s plans, especially if he earns a contract to Sweden or Norway for example.
Duarte Tammilehto; FC Honka; 29/1; 1990
The former HJK trainee was perhaps the biggest revelation last season in Veikkausliiga. The hard-tackling midfielder filled the holding player role that Honka have been without for years. Now with playmaker Rasmus Schuller gone, the U21 Finnish international must take a bigger role in the creative department as well. 11 yellows and 2 red cards speak volumes about the 22-year-old’s competitive streak, but the midfield destroyer needs to curb down his tackling enthusiasm to further develop his and Honka’s game.
Jani Virtanen; JJK; 79/4; 1988
Also a former Udinese player, Jani Virtanen made his breakthrough last season as an understudy for Mikko Manninen. Although the 24-year-old was still somewhat inconsistent last term, he is expected to orchestrate JJK’s play in 2012. Having the eye for the spectacular as well as plenty of pace and trickery, Virtanen still needs to find consistency, get more strength and develop the tactical attributes in his game (especially movement without the ball). With Europa League matches on the calendar for the Jyväskylä team this year, this should be the season the former TPS trainee makes himself a household name in the Finnish football scene.
Joel Pohjanpalo; HJK; 9/5; 1994
The 18-year-old scored 33 goals in 23 games for HJK’s reserve side Klubi 04 in the Finnish third tier last season, which allows HJK fans to dream of another rainmaker in the Teemu Pukki mould. Pohjanpalo, however, is a different type of player to his former team-mate but has even greater potential. With pace, determination, a fine eye for movement and venom on the shot, the teenager looks like the complete forward to lead the line for HJK. Many big European clubs are monitoring his development (Pohjanpalo already turned down Liverpool once), but the budding talent should consolidate himself in the HJK shirt this season before venturing abroad. If Pohjanpalo stays in Helsinki for the whole season and remains injury-free he may go on to score 15–20 goals. The biggest talent coming through HJK’s ranks since Mikael Forssel.