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.

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Inter hold on to their advantage

FC Inter – Honka 0-0
HJK – TPS 1-0
FC Lahti – Haka 1-0
KuPS – MyPa 1-4
VPS – Jaro 2-1
TamU – IFK Mariehamn 1-0

Highlights here, just click the “Veikkausliiga” link below the video.

Inter and Honka couldn’t spell out a difference between themselves in the long-awaited game between the two top teams in Turku. Not the best of football games, but the weather made the game difficult for both sides. It was raining before the game even started and the cats and dogs kept coming down all night long. The football was as good as it gets in circumstances like that.

Both teams have nothced up 50 points, but Inter have a seven-goal advantage in goal difference and it is highly probable that wins against MyPa and Jaro would earn them the title. It is too early to put the champagne in the freezer, however, since dropping points might mean dropping the title.
Honka have games left against TamU at home and IFK Mariehamn away, and their job will be difficult too. Both teams are likely to give all they have got anyway, because it is almost certain that Inter and Honka will occupy the two top spots.

HJK and Lahti are in good positions as far as the European spots are concerned. Paulus Roiha’s great strike earned HJK a 1-0 victory against TPS while Lahti marked a home win win against Haka. HJK and Lahti have yet to play each other in the last round of games and the big stakes will add an interesting twist both on and off the pitch.

VPS beat Jaro 2-1 in the Ostrobothnian derby, thanks to a late game winner by Antonio Inutile. Both teams can now relax as they will most likely stay up for next season. That is some kind of an improvement, because at least one of the teams has usually been firmly rooted in the relegation battle at this stage of the campaign.

KuPS succumbed to a 4-1 loss against MyPa, who paid them a visit. KuPS are now four points away from safety, but TamU did them a favour by winning IFK Mariehamn 1-0. To Egan’s delight, the only goal of the game was scored by Henri Myntti.

RoPS will play KooTeePee tonight, and if they deliver the expected win, they are safe from relegation play-offs.

The stormy weather on Sunday inspired a couple of articles about the end of the season. Jari Welling of Turun Sanomat hoped that there will be “no more than a metre of snow” on the 26th, when the final round of games will be played. Helsingin Sanomat’s Tommi Hannula also thought that the season ends too late.
In my opinion, the Finns’ obsession with weather borders on the absurd. I’m sorry, Welling and Hannula, but if we want to see development in Finnish football, the season cannot start in late May and end in early September. Besides, the autumn games are usually quite atmospheric. Yesterday’s weather was an exception. Put some clothes on and stop whining.

Yle vs. Urheilukanava

Yle started their Veikkausliiga broadcasts today as FF Jaro played FC Lahti. The system in Finland is quite interesting: Urheilukanava broadcast the games from April to September, and Yle are only interested when the title is about to be won. The move from Urheilukanava to Yle may raise the number of people watching, as Urheilukanava is a channel directed at sports people and the popular Yle channels have something for everyone – except football fans.

I was prepared for my daily dose of football well in advance, and out of an old habit I turned on the TV half an hour before the game to watch the pre-game analysis – but instead, I had to watch men with bags full of testosterone tune a Ford Ranchero.When the broadcast started, only 10 minutes prior to kick-off, I only saw a widely unknown guy from Yle standing next to Juha Malinen, who had nothing interesting to say during the lucrative five minutes dedicated to the pre-match analysis.

After the game, the same team made a desperate attempt to discuss the game in a quarter of an hour, including post-match interviews. The ratings aside, difference between Yle and Urheilukanava was huge, to the advantage of the latter. If Yle really wants to broadcast the games, why not do it properly? In Urheilukanava, two highly enthusiastic football lovers dedicate 25 minutes to predicting the game before Finland’s best commentator, Tuomas Virkkunen, takes over.

And the same formula is used for every game, be it a largely uninteresting encounter between two mid-table teams or a highly anticipated clash between two top teams. Yle then interferes and ruins the whole thing for the most interesting games of the season. In addition to not doing things properly, they also force changes in the schedules. The televised game always starts at 4 PM, while other fixtures are kicked off at 7:30 as usual.

Anyway, KuPS suffered an expected 4-0 loss at Inter on Friday and they weren’t much helped on Sunday by TPS, whose new, more spirited style of play under John Allen meant a 2-1 loss to the struggling IFK Mariehamn. To cancel out Inter’s win, Honka took an expected win over KooTeePee and HJK took the win they needed at MyPa, the score being 3-1. FC Lahti had to settle with a 2-2 draw at Jaro and VPS got a point at TamU with each team scoring once.

There’s three points separating FC Honka from table-topping Inter, and if neither of the teams stumble, their clash in Turku on 5th October will be of a decisive nature as far as the title is concerned. HJK are five points away from the top and will have to use the backdoor if they want to join the title race. Other teams are ruled out unless miracles happen.

Kuusela packs his bags, Allen to fill in

Following an utterly disappointing season, TPS have sacked head coach Martti Kuusela.
Personally, I am shocked with the announcement. Letting your head coach go is not unusual when you don’t get the right result, but there are very few cases in the history of TPS when a head coach has been sacked while the season is still underway. TPS don’t usually do things that way, for one reason or another.

This also reflects a change of attitude of some sort. Having been asked about it on numerous occasions, managing director Petri Jakonen has said that the season has been a disappointment, but one bad season will not harm the stability at the club, giving the impression of, among other things, Kuusela’s position being secure.
Jakonen has let it be known that TPS want to achieve the top position among Finnish clubs in all respects, but there is no hurry. Kuusela was not given a chance to build a team of his own players (the current squad is largely built up by Mixu Paatelainen, who was in charge in 2007) before being sacked. A sign of impatience?

TPS will have to make interesting decisions in the future. Should they let a long-serving assistant like John Allen (assistant coach) or Marko Rajamäki (youth team coach) take over in hopes of continuity? Or should they take a bigger risk and look abroad in an attempt to find a new Job Dragtsma?

In addition, the squad could face considerable changes. Christian Gyan and Armand One are near contract expiry and are expected to leave. Kasper Hämäläinen, Mika Ääritalo and maybe even Jukka Lehtovaara might move abroad. Urmas Rooba, Jani Sarajärvi, Ville Lehtonen, Chris Cleaver, Iiro Aalto, Simon Pedersen and Mikko Paatelainen all have a couple of months left on their contracts, and making players sign new contracts is challenging when they don’t know who will be the man in charge.  As if this was not enough, rumours are spreading that the injury Simo Valakari has suffered of ever since the away fixture at Tampere United in May could be of a career-ending nature.

On the timing, Jakonen commented that TPS want to solve the coach issue and build their team with time and peace. As far as Kuusela is concerned, Jakonen said he was not under lucky stars, but “the general appearance of the team did not match the goals and expectations set for the team”.

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.

Inter sail on under lucky stars

KuPS – HJK 3-2
VPS – FC KooTeePee 1-1
MyPa – RoPS 1-0
FC Honka – TPS 2-2
TamU – FC Haka 1-1
FC Inter – FC Lahti 1-0
IFK Mariehamn – FF Jaro CANCELLED

Inter have signed a great deal with the football gods. They won FC Lahti in front of over 8000 people willing to see Jari Litmanen in action, the difference between the sides being Mika Ojala’s beautiful – and somewhat lucky – freekick. Besides winning, almost everything else went just like they wanted: FC Haka failed to win at Tampere United, FC Honka were able to limit TPS to a draw, and most notably, HJK gave away three points during the second half after they had gone up by two at KuPS. Inter are now topping the league by a margin of five points. Their next game away at HJK might be decisive as far as the title is concerned and interestingly, HJK are the only team who have managed to beat Inter. That was the game that dropped Inter out of the cup.

KooTeePee are improving. They are now unbeaten in two games. That does not sound like a lot, but KooTeePee are one of the crappiest teams in the history of Finnish football.

The pitch at Maarianhamina’s Wiklöf Holding Arena was soaked, so there was no game. It has been raining in the island since Saturday and they teams together with the referee decided to call it a day 1,5 hours before the match was scheduled to start. Rumours are saying that Jaro would have wanted to play the game on Monday. I understand that, since that would probably spare them another trip to the island, but I’m glad IFK did not agree to do so. This is a professional league, and games should not be scheduled with a notice that would most conveniently be counted in hours rather than days.

The Return of the King

FC Lahti have announced that the legendary #10, Jari Litmanen, is a new addition to their squad. He has been training with the team for a few weeks now and it was quite natural that he decided to bring this season to its conclusion playing for Lahti.

“He has been training very well with us, and I have no doubt that he is ready for Veikkausliiga,” said Mäkelä in response to my query as to whether he was really better than Berat Sadik. “He is fit, and mentally focused, which hasn’t been the case too often with Jari Litmanen in recent years.”

“Once he has played 2-3 games for us, he should be available to the national team for the Israel game. He’s a great example to the younger players, his dedication to training is quite something. He will provide a focus for our attack that we’ve been missing since Berat Sadik left to play in the Bundesliga.”

Somewhat surprisingly, FC Lahti are involved in this season’s title race, and Litmanen – despite his age – can do wonders for his side. Maybe Rafael will now find his flair again? This could be great for Veikkausliiga, too.

Mäkelä made the point that “now we’ll see just how much people in Finland really care about football”, a reference to the hype and media coverage that will surely follow Litmanen’s Lahti around.

Litmanen last played with Lahti in 2004, and his joining the club meant great attendances wherever he played. The Finns were so eager to see the King play that FC Lahti had to put out an infamous press release ending with the words “FC Lahti reserve the right to pick out their squad themselves”. That was after he had missed a couple of games due to injury and big crowds left the stadia dissatisfied.

This time Mäkelä is hoping for 5,000-6,000 for the game against KuPS on Monday, many of them presumably going to see KuPS’s new signing from Tampere United Antti Hynynen. The game is on TV, 7pm on Urheilukanava, and there will surely be a stream available for those outside Finland.

In other news, Iiro Aalto “returns” to TPS. He signed a contract early in the year, but left to play for Olympiakos Nicosia of Cyprus before ever playing a game for TPS. Olympiakos Nicosia were relegated, enabling Aalto’s return to Finland, where he joined Tampere United.

I wonder what TPS will get out of this. They have a decent left defender in Urmas Rooba and some backup to see off the Estonian’s injury. What TPS would need is either a striker or a centre-back or both, but instead they signed a left defender.