Transfer news

Just a short post to plug Mika Peura’s excellent transfer page. I’ll write a bit more on the more interesting news in due course (Valeri Popovitch’s departure from Haka being the juiciest little morsel), but if you need to keep in touch with the ins and outs in the meantime, Mika’s your man.

We have a few interviews in the pipeline, as well as the usual navel-gazing and bullshit. The women and under-21s are the national teams of the moment, and they deserve more coverage than they’ve received thus far. We’ll endeavour to put that right soon.

Toni Lehtinen signs for Levadiakos

Former FC Haka striker Toni Lehtinen has signed for Levadiakos, according to the Greek daily Sportday. His contract will run until the end of the 2009-2010 season, with an option for a further year, and he will earn around €80,000 a year.

Lehtinen has been at Haka since 2003, and has played 104 league games, scoring 39 goals. He has been on trial at VFL Bochum and Eintracht Braunschweig in recent years. He has been on the fringes of the national squad, but needs a good season if he is to have any hope of forcing his way into the reckoning, especially after Niklas Tarvajärvi’s solid performance against Switzerland last night.

Levadiokos are a lower ranking Greek club who usually have a relegation battle of some kind or another. They represent the small town of Levedeia in the Greek Super League, and their budget is pretty meagre, so Lehtinen’s wages represent ‘respectable money’, according to FIF’s friends in Greece. lehtinen has experience of playing abroad before, but having visited both Greece and Lehtinen’s previous location – Peterborough – I can safely say they don’t have much in common.

Levadiokos’s strikers include the veteran Albanian Alban Bushi, 32 year old Eduardo Bustos Montoya, Patrick Dimbala from DR Congo and Greek youngster Stelios Vasiliou. None of them have made it out of single figures in the Greek league before, and it might be difficult to do so at a smaller club, in a new league. In any event, Lehtinen will have to knuckle down and show his worth to more senior players, after being the number one striker at Haka for so long. His pace might be an asset the club will look to utilise.

Who cares about the Cup?

The two semi finals were played last night, and to be honest I was embarassed for all four teams, everyone that went to watch them, and the competition itself. The game I saw was Haka v Honka, and finished 1-0 to the Espoo side, but it was a travesty of a match.

First the positives: Rasmus Schuller, a 17 year old midfielder with a calm head, played his third game for Honka. He did not look out of place, he was composed, and I think he will play a much bigger role for Honka next season. Jaakko Lepola also played, and his quick feet and brain will stand Honka’s midfield in very good stead over the next few years. That’s it for the positives, sorry.

Playing for Haka were Toni Lehtinen – rumoured to be on his way to Honka for next season – and Cheyne Fowler, who will be wearing a HJK shirt in 2009.

I did wonder whether Lehtinen was likely to do his best to score against possible future team mates, and when he inexplicably missed the target in a one on one during the first half, eyebrows were metaphorically raised in the Haka stands. If you can call a shout of ‘fuck off Lehtinen’ a ‘ metaphorically raised eyebrow’.

Fowler put in a decent performance, but you can understand why he might not want to put himself about too much. When he got a knock late in the game he went off straight away, presumably so as to avoid jeopardising his HJK contract.

There was another dimension to Fowler’s game. A Honka victory means that their opponents in the final will qualify automatically for the UEFA Cup, as Honka already qualified through league position. That means HJK, Fowler’s new club. It’s quite a dilemma for a player, if losing a game can guarantee he plays in Europe for his new team.

This kind of thing is unavoidable to an extent, as the final is the last game of the season and players will always agree to move before it is played. But the semi finals should be done and dusted a long way before, in order to avoid the farcical situation we had last night. Haka put in a performance very similar to many others this season, but the ability to calculate European qualification at the Semi Final or even quarter final stage (TamU and Honka played theirs last week) should not be available to teams, players, agents and managers.

This is a scheduling issue, and it will only get worse next year. The Under 21 European Championships will necessitate a break in the domestic schedule, as Finland qualified, and the UEFA Europa League will have 48 teams in the group stages, a big expansion on the current 40. Tampere United and FC Honka have both come close to qualifying for the UEFA Cup in recent years, and Honka will be aiming to get there this time. If they do, the Finnish Cup will probably not be played until the following March.

It looks like the 2009 Veikkausliiga will once again have all the rythmn of Mohamed Al Fayed. Two games a week will be played in May, there will be a month long break, and then the final rounds of the Cup will be played once everyone knows the final league table.

Veikkausliiga Round 25 preview, part 2

TamU beat Honka 4-3 in an entertaining game that saw TamU stir up the title race once again. A few weeks ago they got a home win against Inter and now the other title candidate was treated to a defeat at their hands.

FC Lahti – IFK Mariehamn

A win would guarantee IFK Mariehamn a place in Veikkausliiga for next year while the Black Drones could use a win too, as it would mean that the fate of bronze medals would then be decided in the last round of games.
IFK Mariehamn have suffered from injuries throughout the season and Arajuuri, Reed, Ochieng, Överström, Blomberg and Chilom are still out. FC Lahti have no injuries apart from Jere Pitkälä, who has been missing for a long time. So yes, the King will play.
It will probaly be an even game as both teams have something to play for. However, I think the home team’s quality and their willingness to bring home the first medals in the club’s history is enough to see off the threat of IFK Mariehamn.

MyPa – FC Inter

MyPa still have a chance of finishing fourth while Inter have an advantage over Honka in the title race.
Tuomas Kuparinen is out for MyPa while Ats Purje, Ville Nikkari, Kito, Felix Åkerlund, Henri Lehtonen, Joni Kauko and Ville Mäkilä are out for Inter. The list looks lengthy, but they have played fairly well without Purje, Nikkari and Kito and Henri Lehtonen, despite being the team captain, can be replaced as he has been fairly average during the season.
I’ve got to go for an away win here. MyPa won’t lose this game easily, but Inter will know that after Honka’s defeat yesterday, a win today will make them champions.

FF Jaro – KuPS

The hosts are safe and have nothing to play for, but are motivated as 2008 has been Jaro’s best season in a long time. KuPS, on the other hand, are threatened by relegation and need a win to have a chance of avoiding the relegation play-offs.
Jonas Portin, Jonas Emet, Vesa Heikinheimo and Jermu Gustaffson are missing from the hosts. KuPS’ Joonas Pöntinen and Petteri Pennanen are away with the U-19 team and Jarno Kauhanen and Echiabhi Okodugha are injured.
Given Jaro’s good season (by their standards), I can’t really see the visitors taking a win. A draw is by all means possible and Jaro could snatch the three points too.

RoPS – VPS

Both teams are safe from relegation. RoPS will probably field some of their own youngsters and that is a welcome move. Janne Turpeenniemi is suspended and Nchimunya Mweetwa and Chileshe Chibwe are out due to injuries. VPS are missing Ville Koskimaa, Jussi Ekström and the suspended Maciej Truszczynski.
It might be a display of nice, creative football or then a crop of uninterested players trying to get it out of the way. The win could go either way and a draw is possible too.

TPS – FC KooTeePee

Perhaps the most uninteresting game of the round. TPS have had a tough, disappointing season and KooTeePee ensured a couple of weeks ago that they are going down to Ykkönen (although I am tempted to say that the relegation was already a foregone conclusion in April).
Kiko is suspended for TPS and Ville Lehtonen, Mika Ääritalo, Jani Sarajärvi and Simo Valakari are missing due to injuries. KooTeePee are missing Niko Ikävalko, Obinna Okafor and Tommi Vartiainen. Tuomo Turunen and Henri Järviniemi are doubtful.
Basically, the question is how big a margin will TPS win by. Maybe Mikko Paatelainen has an answer as he has a chance of being the league’s top scorer this year?
If KooTeePee get anything out of this game, I can only call it ridiculous. A definite home win.

FC Haka – HJK

One of the classics in Finnish football.
Haka will not bring home silverware or European spots this year, HJK are still fighting for bronze medals. Haka are in the Suomen Cup semi finals and the Cup is all they are aiming for.
The hosts are missing Kalle Parviainen and Sebastian Strandvall. HJK are healthy, with the possible exception of Petri Oravainen.
Haka have lost four home games in a row and will want to turn it around in their last home fixture of the season. HJK, however, have more to play for and are favourites.

Veikkausliiga Round 18 preview, part 1

FC Lahti and TamU kicked off the 18th round on Friday and the matched ended in a 2-2 draw. Dramatically, TamU were up by one until the 90th minute. Then Jari Litmanen scored in stoppage time and two minutes later Jonne Kemppinen gave the hosts the lead. Nobody expected TamU to get a result anymore, but Toni Järvinen scored on the 11th hour to settle the final score.

Saturday 23rd, 17:00 FC Haka – FC Honka

This is a sixpointer. Honka are third in the league and Haka are sixth, trailing their opponents by three points.
Their encounter in the spring ended in Honka’s 7-0 victory, but a similar result is an unlikely event. Haka have some new players, and off-pitch issues that caused speculation around the last Honka game are now a thing of the past.
Haka are missing Pietari Holopainen, Mikko Innanen and Sebastian Strandvall. Honka’s Tuomo Turunen will return from suspension.
The game is difficult to call, but having an unbeaten record of eight unbeaten games, I would pick Honka to for the favourites – despite the fact that they have never got an away win at Haka.

Sunday 24th, 18:30

TPS – MyPa

MyPa are trying hard to reach the European spots, and TPS are targeting similar positions in the table.
TPS have Jani Sarajärvi, Janne Vellamo, Simo Valakari and Jarno Heinikangas missing, but will still field a good squad. Their most interesting player is their new Danish striker Simon Azoulay Pedersen. MyPa, on the other hand, are missing Tuomas Kuparinen and Juho Nykänen.
TPS are a very unpredictable team. One night they play really well and give their opponents no chance, another night they look like they have never even seen a football. Sometimes they play really well, but end up losing anyway. This could really be a win for either side and a draw is by all means possible too.
The season’s first game between these teams ended in MyPa’s 1-0 home win.

RoPS – FF Jaro

Rovaniemi is a tough place for any team to go. On the other hand, RoPS have not won nor scored in their last four games. Jaro got a surprise win against MyPa two weeks ago and have not played since, because their last Sunday’s game at IFK Mariehamn was cancelled.
RoPS are fairly healthy, their only notable absentee is Mika Nurmela, who is suspended after collecting too many yellow cards.
Jaro are quite the opposite. Vesa Heikinheimo, Kristian Kojola, Jens Portin and Toni Junnila are all out, Jari Sara is doubtful. They have reinforced their squad with defenders Jordan Simpson and Jermu Gustafsson (on loan from Inter) and midfielder Joonas Laurikainen (on loan from KaaPo).
Both teams are looking to stay clear of relegation and occupy a mid-table position, so this game is important for both sides. Maybe we will see another draw, like in the spring?

VPS – IFK Mariehamn

Another important game, especially for the visitors, whose recent form has seen them go down to sharing the relegation play-off spot with KuPS.
IFK Mariehamn have had problems with their goalkeepers, but with their new acquisition, Dan Alexandru Chisom, things look better. Arash Bayat will also make a debut for the islanders.
VPS are missing Tony Björk. Other than that, VPS coach Tomi Kärkkäinen has said they can field a good squad.
VPS have had problems with scoring and even creating chances in their recent fixtures. IFK Mariehamn, for their part, have not won for a long time, so both teams have a chance of regaining some of their lost confidence.

To sell or not to sell?

Juha raised a good question the other day about Finnish teams in Europe. Are they happy to draw big clubs, in the expectation that they will get a drubbing and a bumper crowd, or do they prefer to get the unkown teams that might offer a chance of progress? TamU’s co-owner Tim Rowe was rather annoyed at drawing Buducnost in the first qualifying round, because they are neither a big club nor a pushover, so a small crowd and an exit was a possibility: the worst of all worlds, in other words.

TamU are out of the CL now, after a 4-2 defeat in the second leg against Artmedia, but they have become a good veikkausliiga side. At the start of the season they were a bad Veikkausliiga team, whereas last season they were playing a different sport to most other teams in the division. The sale of Juska Savolainen hurt them a lot, as pointed out loudly and repeatedly by Ari Hjelm, and you do wonder what might have happened if they’d gambled a bit and kept hold of him for another crack at the Champions League. This season’s TamU would have a good chance against Kaunas or Aalborg, never mind one with Juska in it as well.

But that’s by the by. TamU are now a side with a big centre forward, to whom they do not just ‘lump it up’ as I put it before. Pohja and James come deep to collect the ball, and if and when a cross to Myntti comes, it is usually a quality ball that catches the defence out. Only occasionally do they hit a long ball, and when they do Myntti usually wins it and lays it off. Against Artmedia TamU lost the midfield battle and were forced into long balls more often, with the Slovakians well prepared, tall and able to physically defend Myntti. Veikkausliiga teams don’t seem to have grasped that skill yet, but when RoPS were winning the midfield battle they had chances to score and TamU looked poor.

It will be interesting to see how TPS cope with Myntti on Saturday. Against Inter they were abject, unable to cope with Joni Aho striding out of defence or Jos Hooiveld’s heading ability at corners. The one bright spot for Martti Kuusela is that his ploy of using Chris Cleaver at right back worked quite well, with Purje inneffective for much of the game.

In the stands it was an even contest, with TPS having a slight edge in the early stages but suffering from inflexibility towards the end. They sat in the Veritas Stand opposite the Inter fans, a much better position for the away support to occupy than the usual spot at the other end of the same stand, and were very loud in the early stages. Their ‘the city is black and white’ chant was particularly apt as the 8,254 crowd seemed to be split pretty evenly between Tepsi and Inter fans, despite it being an Inter home game.

But when Inter took the lead and their fans started asking if TPS’s Sissi Ryhmä were going to turn their backs again, they had no answer. A bad day for TPS, with Kuusela conceding the title was a lost cause and a thorough seeing to from their crosstown rivals, but I was most interested in Job Dragtsma’s reactions.

I like him, his team has always tried to play good football and he is finally seeing some success for his efforts. He seems much harder this season though, a bit less relaxed and occasionally going apoplectic on the bench, entirely losing his cool Dutch aura. He had good reason on Monday, as Inter players were consistently getting scythed down and the referee only booking their players. With games against Haka, Lahti and HJK coming up, Inter have a golden opportunity to stride ahead of the pack in the next couple of weeks and you sense that Dragtsma knows it – the other possibility is that Inter lose top spot and have to fight like hell to get it back.

European draws

Friday’s UEFA Cup and Champions League draws could have shown the participating Finnish clubs a bit more mercy.

TamU’s dreams of making it to the Champions League group stage are pretty much ruled out. They need a perfect performance and some help from the heavens above if they want to cancel out Artmedia’s 3-1 aggregate lead and three away goals in their second qualification round second leg game next week. Even if they do qualify for the next round, they will need another miracle when they take on Italian giants Juventus.

In the UEFA Cup, FC Haka will play Brøndby IF from Denmark, while FC Honka face a challenge from Norway’s Viking Stavanger.
Veikkausliiga teams in general are not much weaker than Norwegian or Danish premier league sides. However, other Scandinavian sides usually have more experience from European games as opposed to the Finns, and the quality of their routine performance is a little bit higher, owing to them getting so many challenging games in their domestic leagues.
It cannot be said that Haka and Honka stand no chance though. The Scandinavian clashes are usually even affairs, but Danish, Swedish and Norwegian sides always seem to have the upper hand. Most likely Haka and Honka will have to put in a performance of their highest standards.

It is interesting to see how the clubs will react, if any leading persons in the organizations come out publicly to discuss the draws. In the past, Finnish clubs have sometimes been so pessimistic about their team’s chances of qualifying that they have wanted to be drawn to play a big European club, the logic behind being “we won’t qualify anyway, so let’s hope we get a big team to play against so we can cash in on the home game”. FC Honka could have drawn Manchester City and FC Haka had a chance to play Aston Villa. Both English teams would have probably beaten their Finnish opponents, but they would have attracted huge crowds. Playing Brøndby IF and Viking Stavanger will provide the Finns with a better chance to qualify, but in case they lose, will the clubs grieve over the money they “lost” when they didn’t get to play European giants?

Haka 4 Cork City 0

FC Haka 4 Cork City 0

Cork City’s European hopes were dashed here in Valkeakoski last night as they fell to a disastrous 4-0 defeat against FC Haka. Manager Alan Mathews was left to rue his decision to switch to a 4-5-1 formation after his side were steamrollered in front of a sell-out crowd at Tehtaan Kenttä.

“We switched from 4-4-2 because it was a big pitch, and we wanted to try and keep it tight in the middle and to give ourselves a foothold in the game,” said Mathews, while Cork fans shouted their scorn for the formation during the post-match interview.

The 30-strong Rebel Army had previously chanted ‘4-4-2’ and ‘on the ground’ as their side failed to get any kind of foothold and resorted to niggly fouls and long balls. At half time Mathews changed the formation in an attempt to come back from a 2-0 deficit, bringing on striker Denis Behan and taking off midfielder Cillian Lordan.

Behan’s aggressive style proved counter-productive when he contested a free kick given against him and was given a yellow card for dissent. The 24 year old had already been booked for a foul 13 minutes earlier, and the Latvian referee had no choice but to send the former Brentford man off.

“If you get sent off for dissent, that’s an unacceptable red card,” said a frustrated Mathews after the game. “If you get sent off for fouling somebody perhaps you can dispute it, but dissent is a cheap red card and that’s very disappointing.”

Cork went behind in the 10th minute when Toni Lehtinen raced clear down the right flank. He crossed for Janne Mahlakaarto, who slotted the ball past Cork goalkeeper Michael Devine. It was a taste of things to come for the Cork defence, who were carved open repeatedly in a torrid first half.

Haka’s Russian midfielder Valeri Popovitch was the star of the show. Having missed the first leg in Cork due to his aviophobia, the 38 year old showed his class with a lovely lob for the second goal after great interplay with Lehtinen.

Cork had a lot of corners but never looked like scoring. Their most dangerous moment came when Haka goalkeeper Sasha Dovbnya dropped the ball 10 yards from goal, but even then Mooney was second to the ball and the danger passed. Their evening was summed up when Gamble raced clear of his marker but overran the ball. His frustration boiled over and he belted the ball at the advertising hoardings, with the rebound almost reaching the halfway line.

Manninen got a third goal after good work from Popovitch and Kangaskorpi, before Valeri Minkenen won a free kick and scored it himself to wrap up a 4-0 win in the 79th minute.

Asked by Finnish journalists what had gone wrong, Mathews denied his side were unprepared for Popovitch. “We knew he was a good player and we had plans to deal with that, but we put in a very poor performance that wasn’t worthy of getting anything from the game,” said Cork manager Alan Mathews.

Haka: Dovbnya, Kangaskorpi, Viljanen (Minkenen 61), Okkonen, Kauppila, Manninen (Nikkilä 85), Parviainen, Lehtinen (Mattila 52), Popovitch, Mahlakaarto, Fowler.

Cork: Devine, Horgan, Murray, Gamble, Lordan (Behan 45), Healy, Darren Murphy, Sullivan, Kearney (Ryan 61), Danny Murphy, Mooney (O’Flynn 81).

Goals: 10′ Mahlakaarto, 15′ Popovitch, 70′ Manninen, 79′ Minkenen

Attendance: 3,211

FC Haka v Cork City preview

This should be in today’s Irish Daily Mail:

Cork City manager Alan Mathews is expected to name an unchanged team for his side’s UEFA Cup First Qualifying Round clash with Finnish club FC Haka tonight. Cork need at least a high scoring draw after the first leg at Turner’s Cross finished 2-2, but there was an upbeat mood among the Cork squad as they trained in hot sunny weather at Haka’s Tehtaan Kenttä ground yesterday afternoon.

Cork are aiming to emulate the aggressive, up-tempo game that saw City claw back a two goal deficit in the first leg. Haka will welcome back the calming influence of 38 year-old Russian playmaker Valeri Popovitch, who did not travel to Ireland because he is afraid of flying.

The Finnish club have won nine Finnish Championships, more than any other club except HJK Helsinki, but off-field issues have dominated their start to the 2008 season.

The Valkeakoski side were initially refused a licence to play in this season’s UEFA Cup because their finances were not in order. Part of the solution came when the local council bought all the tickets for the home leg of the First Round tie, and then distributed them free of charge.

A capacity crowd of 3,500 is expected at the stadium, which has a pleasantly wooded setting on three sides, and a foul-smelling wood pulp factory on the other.

The pulp factory is a symbol of the previous backers of the club, United Paper Mills. After they pulled the plug on Haka, local nightclub owner Seppo ‘Sedu’ Koskinen stepped in and bought the club, promising to glamorise football in the small industrial town of Valkeakoski.

The 51 year old owner has promised to increase the ‘buzz’ around Haka games by inviting Finnish celebrities to Haka games, and has suggested that Haka players will need to be good-looking in future so as to ensure plenty of women turn up.

Cork will be without striker John O’Flynn, who has not yet recovered from his ligament injury. Haka’s Mikko Innanen and Pieteri Holopainen were injured in Sunday’s 1-0 win over VPS Vaasa and will be replaced by first leg goalscorer Janne Mahlakaarto and Jarno Mattila.

Probable line-ups

Haka: Dovbnya, Mattila, Kangaskorpi, Viljanen, Okkonen, Mattila, Kauppila, Manninen, Popovitch, Lehtinen, Mahlakaarto

Cork: Devine, Horgan, Murray, Sullivan, Danny Murphy, Healy, Gamble, Darren Murphy, Kearney, Behan, Mooney.

Veikkausliiga Round 14 round-up

FF Jaro – Tampere United 1-4
RoPS – FC Inter 0-0

HJK – IFK Mariehamn 4-0

MyPa – FC Honka 0-2

FC Haka – VPS 1-0
FC Lahti – FC KooTeePee 1-0
TPS – KuPS 3-3

Click on the game for highlights. TPS-KuPS should appear later.

Inter still did not lose, but their form is not so amazing anymore. They have drawn six times in their last seven games. Remarkably, except for Sunday’s goalless draw, Inter have scored the first goal in all those seven games. Maybe they get a bit too complacent after scoring?

The coaches in Veikkausliiga are usually quite professional (well, despite the fact that very few of them wear suits and even fewer really care what they wear for games), but sometimes they go a bit too far. Following MyPa’s defeat against Honka on Sunday, MyPa coach Janne Hyppönen was not very happy with Heikki Pulkkinen’s missed penalty.

We have two rules in the team as far as penalties are concerned. Number one, Tuomas Kuparinen will take the penalty if he is on the pitch. Number two, Heikki Pulkkinen will not take the penalty.

What a confidence boost for Pulkkinen. Anyway, MyPa would have preferred someone other than Honka to break their unbeaten run. They are firmly rooted in the race for the title, however, and should not feel too down-hearted.

IFK Mariehamn succumbed to a four-goal trashing against HJK, who are in great form. FC Lahti, unsurprisingly, got three points and the game was awful. TPS compensated their good recent form by producing a horrible performance against KuPS. Two late goals saved them, but they need to solve a few things out before Inter host them in the second Turku derby of the season on Monday.

In the Champions League, Tampere United are half buried after they went down 3-1 in their home game against Artmedia. Egan will probably post more about that, having been there himself. What I heard was that TamU faced the same problems they have encountered in Veikkausliiga this season.