Sunday, December 30, 2012

Escape To Suomi - A Year In Review

This site was born in June 2012, not long after the start of the Finnish league season and something to do while watching the European Championships. As the year has gone on, we've provided summaries of matches, the hot topics of the moment, and some other pieces which have required a lot of work.

As is tradition, it's time to look at the five most read articles on the site since it's inception, and hopefully gather some feedback.

Number 5 - Suomen Cup final preview

Written the night before the final, the blog previewed Honka v KuPS. Both sides were unlikely to qualify for the Europa League through league placing, and Honka were looking for a first cup win, with KuPS not having won it since 1989. In the end, Honka won the final 1-0, however the aftermath was dominated by controversy after both clubs were fined due to over-zealous support from the travelling fans.


Photo courtesy of Vartaloharhautus

Number 4 - The 1912 Finnish Olympic football team

Conceived during the London Olympics, and some cursory glances through the record books showed the Finland came fourth in the men's football event. Not bad given that they've never qualified for a World Cup or European Championship. More interestingly, it brought the tales of smuggler Algoth Niska and journalist Eino Soinio to a wider audience after the article was picked up and adjusted for esteemed football site In Bed With Maradona.


Eino Soinio

Number 3 - King Litmanen - The Movie

Kuningas Litmanen was the documentary released this autumn about Jari Litmanen. The movie was a big success, reporting big takings for a documentary and also getting an airing at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. The film is out now on DVD, and features talking heads from such luminaries as Louis van Gaal, Steven Gerrard and Dennis Bergkamp. A full review of the DVD will appear on this site in the new year.

No mention of what the deleted scenes are

Number 2 - Carl Jenkinson

One of the big talking points amongst Finnish football fans and writers was about Arsenal full-back Carl Jenkinson, who had represented the Finnish U21 team, via his Finnish mother. After a fantastic start to the English season (standing in for the injured Bacary Sagna), the debate soon hit English shores. Under FIFA rules he was allowed to change allegiance once, and after being invited to train with England, he then made his full debut as a substitute in a friendly against Sweden.

 England's Carl Jenkinson

Number 1 - European prize money

As Finnish clubs progressed in European qualifiers (well, HJK and KuPS at least), the financiers were rubbing their hands at the prospect of the money on offer, as well as the potential for the lucrative group stages. KuPS made it as far as the third qualifying round (losing to Bursaspor), while HJK lost to Celtic in the Champions League qualifier and then Bilbao in the Europa League play-offs. Both will have done reasonably well, KuPS in particular grateful for the money as they posted 2012 losses of 200000. Financially challenged Honka could benefit from a decent run in 2013/14, it was only confirmed last week that they have met the UEFA licensing conditions.

Cha-ching

For 2013, I'll be continuing the weekly Veikkausliiga reviews, and inviting submissions for articles about Finnish football or Finns abroad. I'll be attending the World Cup qualifier against Belarus in Helsinki in June, and against France in Paris in October, so hopefully more about the international team as well.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Veikkausliiga 2013 - not all about the money

On Wednesday evening, the Finnish Football League licensing committee will meet to decide on the Veikkausliiga licenses for the 2013 season. It's been well documented that Suomen Cup winners Honka have had financial difficulties, but on Monday it was revealed that three clubs have been asked to provide documents and assurances that they could fulfil a top flight season. 

 Cup winners Honka, could they be relegated for off-the-pitch problems?

Ykkönen runners-up SJK and third-placed side Viikingit have been invited, as were the team relegated in 2012, Haka. It would be a huge shock for three clubs to be promoted. KuPS last week posted financial losses for the season of €200,000, meaning they have lost €1.1m over the last three seasons. Their main financier Ari Lahti will continue to bankroll them, but for how long?

Will any of these clubs join the 2013 party?

Well money isn't the be all and end all. As part of UEFA regulations, the Finnish league are obliged to ensure that the competing clubs meet the main objectives:

a) to further promote and continuously improve the standard of all aspects of football in Europe and to give continued priority to the training and care of young players in every club;
b) to ensure that clubs have an adequate level of management and organisation;
c) to adapt clubs’ sporting infrastructure to provide players, spectators and media representatives with suitable, well-equipped and safe facilities;
d) to protect the integrity and smooth running of the UEFA club competitions;
e) to allow the development of benchmarking for clubs in financial, sporting, legal, personnel, administrative and infrastructure-related criteria throughout Europe.


Perhaps Honka's financial troubles, with the recent disputes about players looking into legal angles, won't meet D.

We will know on Thursday what the final line-up will be for 2013. The Veikkausliiga website made a point of trying to avoid leaving it late, but with the Liigacup draw already made, could we have Ykkönen clubs involved?

It's only been two years since the whole structure of the league was forced to change because of the removal of Tampere United and AC Oulu, so at least it's a step in the right direction that it's being sorted before Christmas. But Finnish clubs (and the governing body) will need to ensure the stability of the clubs to avoid this confusion again next year.

Friday, December 07, 2012

What happened to the teams that ended Finnish European chances?


With UEFA's showpiece club tournaments reaching their winter break, it's time to review how far the clubs went who put an end to Finnish hopes in the late summer. It's been 14 years since a Finnish club was still playing continental football in December (HJK were in the Champions League group stage in 1998 - link to the blog), and it didn't really get close this year either.


HJK - Lost to Celtic, then Athletic Bilbao

2011 Veikkausliiga champions HJK had another crack at the European Cup, entering the second qualifying round and a tie versus Icelandic champions KR Reykjavik. A 7-0 home victory, including a hat-trick by Juho Mäkelä, was followed by a 2-1 win in Iceland, and through to the third qualifying round. There they faced Scottish champions Celtic, and lost 2-1 in Glasgow. Despite Neil Lennon's moaning about HJK's artificial turf, Celtic won the second leg 2-0 and sent HJK into the Europa League. Celtic then defeated Helsingborg 4-0 on aggregate in the play-off round to make it to the group stages. They were drawn against Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow, and managed to finish second in the group, including two wins over Spartak and a home win against Barcelona. Celtic go into the draw for the round of 16 draw on December 20th. 


HJK's consolation was a Europa League play-off tie against the 2011/12 runners-up Athletic Bilbao. But a 6-0 defeat at San Mames extinguished any ideas, and a slightly crazy 3-3 draw in Helsinki meant another premature departure for HJK. Bilbao struggled to reach the heights of the previous season though, having lost Javi Martinez and sidelining Fernando Llorente, and finished third in Group I, behind Lyon and Sparta Prague, winning only one game - at Kiryat Shmona (who fielded Finnish international Roni Porokara).



KuPS - Lost to Bursaspor

KuPS reached the furthest level of the direct Europa League entrants, making it to the third qualifying round after defeating Llanelli (Wales) and Maccabi Netanya (Israel) before losing 1-6 to Turkish side Bursaspor, despite winning the first leg 1-0. The Turks went through to the play-off round, where they faced FC Twente of Holland. They won the first leg 3-1, and after losing 1-3 in Holland after 90 mins, the tie was heading for penalties before Leroy Fer scored a late goal to seal the tie 5-4 on aggregate and send Bursaspor out.


Inter - Lost to Twente

Inter entered the Europa League at the second qualifying round, where they drew Steve McClaren's FC Twente. The first leg in Holland surprisingly finished 1-1, but the second leg saw Twente visit Turku and win 5-0. Twente then played Czech team Mladá Boleslav, winning both legs 2-0 for a 4-0 aggregate. The play-off round saw them face Bursaspor, and won 5-4 (see above under KuPS). They reached the group stage, and were drawn in Group L with Hannover, Levante and Helsingborg, but failed to win a match and exited the group with four points.


MYPA - Lost to Rapid Bucharest 

MYPA qualified for the Europa League via the Fair Play route, and were drawn in the first qualifying round against Welsh second tier Cefn Druids, who were runners up in the Welsh Cup. A 0-0 draw in the first leg was followed by a routine 5-0 win back in Finland, which saw them through to the second qualifying round against Romanian cup runners-up Rapid Bucharest. A 1-3 defeat in Romania was followed by a 0-2 home defeat, a 1-5 aggregate defeat. Rapid went through to play Dutch club Heerenveen in the third qualifying round, but lost the first leg in Holland 4-0, and a 1-0 win in the second leg was academic.


JJK - Lost to Zeta 

JJK's first ever European campaign began with a first qualifying round tie against Norwegians Stabæk, and they won the first leg at home 2-0. But a nervy second leg saw them lose 2-3, and made it through 4-3 on aggregate. Their reward was a tie against Montenegro side Zeta, and won the first leg at home 3-2, but lost 1-0 in Montenegro and exited on the away goals rule. Zeta progressed to a tie against FK Sarajevo, and again progressed on away goals after losing the first leg 2-1, but winning 1-0 at home. Through to the play-off round, they drew PSV Eindhoven and were well and truly stuffed, losing 0-5 and 0-9 for a 0-14 aggregate defeat. PSV were knocked out of the group stage behind Dnipro and Napoli.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Niklas Moisander

Part three in the series of Finns playing elsewhere features defender 27-year-old Niklas Moisander, currently turning out for Dutch giants Ajax.

This past week has seen Ajax eliminated from Group D of the Champions League, and one fewer Finn involved in UEFA's premier tournament in the new year - only Teemu Pukki of Schalke is likely to still be involved by February. They are still ahead of Manchester City in the race for the Europa League, but with a final game away to Real Madrid, it's nowhere near certain (however City have to travel to Dortmund).

 Niklas attempts to endear himself to Arsenal fans

Moisander was a slightly surprising transfer in August 2012, returning to a club where he failed to make an appearance in a three year spell there from 2003-06. Ajax had sold Jan Vertonghen to Tottenham, and needed a replacement. The Finn had been doing well for AZ Alkmaar, winning the league title in 2009, so one imagines that he must have been promised regular games.

But things aren't going smoothly so far, Moisander was sent off in the match at Feyenoord, where Dutch tactics blog 11tegen11 identified Niklas as almost a sure thing for a booking in that Feyenoord match, and in nine league games has three yellows and that red. Ajax are currently fourth in the Eredivisie table, nine points behind leaders PSV. Despite their attacking talents of Eriksen, Fischer and de Jong, Ajax have conceded 16 goals in 13 matches.

In an interview with Mijnvoetbaltalent.nl (in Dutch after re-signing, Niklas talks of the struggles of his first spell at the club, but praises how he developed as a player, and plans to become an example to the younger players at the club.

Frank de Boer and Marc Overmars show off their new signing

Having left Finland at such a young age (he only played 17 matches for TPS), he seems very settled in Holland - although he has been linked with Newcastle United in England. He's getting more games at Ajax, more exposure, and European football - he even scored against Man City and Real Madrid.

His thirty Finland caps seems a small figure, but having only made his debut in 2008, is now the captain and looks set to be a regular fixture. But he has work to do at Ajax, and such a transient team needs stability to try to and defend their title.

On international duty vs Hungary in 2010

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

2012 Veikkausliiga in numbers - Lahti and the bottom three

My first season in numbers post seemed fairly popular, and the length of it was such that I couldn't possibly fit too much in. So I've decided to write a second, featuring newly promoted FC Lahti and the battle to avoid the drop. Enjoy.

Lahti - finishing strongly

FC Lahti's return to top flight in football in 2012 was potentially difficult - despite getting promoted at the first attempt, their previous campaign in 2010 ended with them finishing bottom. With the benefit of hindsight, they actually performed well, winning the games that mattered at the end of the series. They finished the season in fifth place, despite a goal difference of minus four.

Their season was moving along for the first two thirds, as the graph below shows. It would have been reasonable to assume that their final eleven games would have yielded 14 points, leaving them in a lower half position. But the final ten matches yielded seven wins, with defeats only to a fighting Jaro and the match that practically won the title for HJK.

 Lahti's season divided into three - their final 11 games yielded 22 points

No player scored more than seven league goals (Ariel Ngueukam and Drilon Shala), something which they will need to improve upon in 2013. The veteran striker Rafael scored five times in 27 matches - at 34 years old he won't have many more seasons left in him, although his status as a fan's favourite will allow him matches for as long as he wishes to stay (he featured in a Guardian article this autumn about Brazilian exiles in Northern Europe, and spoke of how he loves Lahti).

Lahti otherwise have some promising young players, and will face a battle to keep them at the club before kicking off in 2013. Joel Mero and Matti Klinga have had trials in Germany since the end of the season (at Mönchengladbach and Schalke respectively), while Nikolai Alho has returned to HJK. An extra home game will boost the coffers. But they will need to score more goals.

Over the season, they didn't take more than six points off any opponent - but won at least once against every team they faced. They won twice against TPS, Honka, VPS, KuPS and Haka. In fact they only drew twice in their 33 matches, at home to MYPA in May and away to Mariehamn in September.

Lahti's performance against their rivals in 2012

They conceded 49 goals, the most of the top eight teams. Conceding ten goals to Inter in their three games skews that slightly, but they only kept three clean sheets in the final fifteen matches.

The bottom three - Haka, Jaro and KuPS

As part of the season reviews, it would be wrong to ignore the battle to avoid relegation. The main three participants were Haka, Jaro and KuPS. Haka had been been in decline for a number of years (since their second placed finish in 2007, they had finished 8th, 6th, 8th and 10th). Jaro had finished 11th in 2011, but survived relegation by eight points, and had scored an impressive 49 goals. KuPS finished in the top half in 2011 and made it to the cup final and had a Europa League campaign to look forward to.

The graph below illustrates how close the bottom three were throughout the season, with KuPS only pulling away in the final ten matches, even bottom for a while in June.

The bottom three team (Haka, Jaro, KuPS) in 2012

Haka had lost Pekka Sihvola to MYPA, who went on to score 14 goals for his new club, and they finished with a league worst goal difference of -25, skewed by the 9-2 drubbing at TPS in August. They kept only five clean sheets in 33 games, two of those coming in the their final two matches (which they won both 1-0). Failing to score in nearly half of their matches (fifteen) explains why their top scorer was player of the year Shane Robinson (who has already announced his departure) with eight goals.

The infamous multi-ball incident was painful, but that match at home to HJK ended in a rare draw - they only achieved five in 2012, but Haka lost 19 of their 33 matches (7 out of 16 home games). For 2013, they've already changed their manager, but need to improve their home form to have a crack at returning to the top division at the first attempt.

Haka's match results (wins, draws, losses)

Jaro finished 11th for the second consecutive season, and this was a lot closer, only securing their Veikkausliiga place for 2013 by winning at TPS on the final day of the season. The statistic screaming out between 2011 and 2012 is the huge decrease in goals scored. 49 goals scored (a final goal difference of -15 is impressive for the second bottom side) became 28 goals, and a goal difference of -23. They too made a poor start, with just two wins in their first 11 matches, while they were bottom for a long period between weeks 21 and 27.

Some of this can be put down to individual form (Jussi Aalto didn't score in 20 games), while they had to rely on seven goals from Frank Jonke and three goals in seven games from HJK loanee Sherif Ashraf. They survived 2012 by the skin of their teeth, and will have a resurgent RoPS to contend with to avoid the bottom in 2013.

Frequency of goals scored by Jaro in 2012

KuPS were in the Europa League for the second consecutive season, but certainly weren't expecting to be in a relegation struggle after a good sixth place finish in 2011. But losing players like Dickson Nwakaeme and Fikru Tefera saw them lose sources of goals, and one win (against Haka) in their first eleven games looked ominous. Luckily they were still in touch with Jaro, and eventually caught up, but were only mathematically safe with two matches left. But during the summer, KuPS coach Esa Pekonen suggested there were too many matches, despite his side getting through to the third qualifying round of their European journey, and winning their first leg with Bursaspor 1-0. The run came to an end with a 6-0 defeat in the second leg in Turkey.

Their form after European games wasn't awful, their form in the five games after European ties (they had a week off after the 2nd leg v Llanelli) was DWLLW. They finished with a goal difference of -14, conceding 53 goals, including conceding 6 at home to Inter in July. It wasn't a classic season, and they have already lost Atte Hoivala to VPS while Jerry Voutilainen has recently had a trial with Queens Park Rangers. They will face a struggle to finish in the top half in 2013, but they still reached the Suomen Cup final so there is some optimism, despite the 1-0 defeat to Honka.

KuPS form during their Europa League run (league results in blue, Euro in red)

Monday, November 12, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Jussi Jääskeläinen

The second part of our series on Finns plying their trade abroad focuses on Jussi Jääskeläinen of West Ham United, the longest-serving foreign player currently in the Premier League.

That Bolton survived in English football's top division for so long was quite a surprise, they were a true definition of a yo-yo club in the late 1990s. But after returning in 2001 under Sam Allardyce, they became long-serving members and even qualified for Europe in 2005. The one constant in their stay in the top flight was Finnish goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen, signed in 1997 for just £100,000 (approx €125000) from VPS.

Jussi Jääskeläinen in his VPS days

Jääskeläinen made over 500 appearances for Bolton, once one of England's great clubs (they won the first FA Cup final to be held at Wembley). They were finally relegated in 2012, but the Finn didn't feature as much in the second half of the season due to the emergence of Hungarian keeper Ádám Bogdán. His contract expired, and opted to re-join Allardyce at newly-promoted West Ham, back in the Premier League. Early signs are that he's made the right move.


Jääskeläinen vs Manchester United, voted third best Premier League save (third clip on video)

West Ham were relegated from the Premier League in 2011 with a whimper, but came back up at the first attempt, and after eleven matches are sitting a surprising sixth place, above Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle. They've conceded eleven goals, fewer than Manchester United. It is perhaps indicative of how important their new keeper is that he is currently the top-scoring goalkeeper in the official Fantasy League.

Denying Papiss Demba Cisse in Sunday's 1-0 win at Newcastle

Winner of 56 international caps for Finland, he's showing at 37 that he can still perform at the top level. While several rumoured moves to Arsenal never happened, he's showing perhaps why they have missed out.

He was typically blunt when giving an interview to the official West Ham website after their opening day win against Aston Villa, but even a top-half finish would be a fantastic achievement. While he stated he won't consider a return to international football, coach Mixu Paatelainen must wish he had such options to choose from.

On international duty

Friday, November 09, 2012

2012 Veikkausliiga in numbers - HJK and JJK

I don't claim to have any expertise in using graphs, spreadsheets and tables, but comparing this season's league to 2011, some factors were crying out for some graphs and illustrations. They're not particularly scientific, and the analysis around them is simple. But it should get you thinking. I was originally planning on doing one piece covering the whole league, but have only covered HJK and JJK so far due to getting a bit carried away.

HJK - the closing gap

In 2011, HJK won the title with a huge gap of 24 points. They won 16 out of 17 home games (the other was a goalless draw with third placed JJK), and won ten games in a row between May and July. 2012 was a different story. The winning margin of six points was as much down to runners-up Inter only winning 11 points in the final 12 games, while HJK's longest winning run was five matches. They didn't drop points at home, but drew five matches.

The top three teams (HJK, Inter, JJK) in 2011

The top three teams (HJK, Inter, TPS) in 2012

More informed people have gone into why the gap has closed, and the fact that HJK have changed coach for 2013 is a clear sign, despite the angle that they want to do better in Europe. The fact is that in the final few games, HJK's experience and deeper squad took them over the line, while the Turku sides will rue on a missed opportunity.

From a purely numbers angle, HJK scored 23 fewer goals in 2012, and conceded 10 more; with goal difference of a huge +63 in 2011 became +30 in 2012. The emergence of Joel Pohjanpalo provided a goal threat after the departures of Teemu Pukki and Jari Litmanen (although he only scored one league goal in 2011), but he looks set to move to Germany. Mikael Forssell has re-signed for 2013 on huge wages, so a lot will be expected of him.

It's also an interesting comparison to look at HJK's performances against individual teams. (To be consistent, I've not included 2011 results against RoPS or 2012 results against Lahti). 2012 HJK only improved against TPS and JJK, whereas in 2011, they did better in matches versus Inter, MYPA, Honka, VPS, Jaro and Haka.

HJK results against individual teams from 2011 and 2012

I'll come onto JJK shortly, which may give credence to the increase in points there. TPS's points total however improved in 2012, albeit by four points. HJK achieved maximum points (three wins) in 2011 against MYPA, VPS, KuPS and Haka. In 2012 it was only JJK and KuPS. The league structure plays a part, in that the third games are spread so that (in HJK's case having finished in the top half in 2010) HJK had six home games and five away for weeks 23-33. 

But looking closer, two of the MYPA and Haka matches in 2011 were away. In 2012, they played JJK away twice. In August 2012, Egan Richardson wrote in Nordic Football News about the current fixture system favouring HJK. They certainly benefitted that they played their rivals at home, while Inter v TPS could easily be seen as an away tie. So while it benefits HJK by weakening their rivals, they took less advantage than they did in 2011.

(* In 2011, HJK took 9 points against RoPS, and 6 points against Lahti)

JJK - falling back

2011 bronze medallists JJK haven't had as long or rich as history as some of their rivals. In their current form, they've only existed since 1992 (a merger between JYP-77 and JyPK), and have only played in the top division since 2009. After finishing 13th in their first two seasons (the league had 14 teams then, before the league was re-structured after Oulu and Tampere were removed), they finished an incredible third place, and qualified for Europe for the first time.

But fourteen points were dropped between 2011 and 2012. The biggest changes were between matches against MYPA (three points fewer in 2012), VPS (four points fewer) and relegated Haka (six points fewer). The only team they improved against was TPS (one point more than 2011). 

JJK results against individual teams from 2011 and 2012

(* In 2011, JJK took 7 points against RoPS, and 6 points against Lahti)

For a team finishing third one year, to only finishing eight points off the bottom the following year is disappointing. It could be argued that they have returned to their natural level, and that they over-achieved in 2011. Only Tamás Gruborovics (12 goals), Mikko Innanen and Babatunde Wusu reached double figures in league goals (10 each). Gruborovics has been on trial at Dutch side Willem II, so seems likely to be joining the exodus from the Veikkausliiga.

The defence also performed poorly, conceding 48 goals in 2011, and 65 in 2012 (slightly warped by conceding six on the final day to HJK), keeping just five clean sheets. They even conceded five goals to KuPS, not something to brag about. That they let in three goals on seven occasions is very concerning. The chart below shows the frequency of goals conceded. A median average of just under 2 goals a game is underlined here.



Their short spell in the Europa League (they were knocked out in the second qualifying round by Zeta of Montenegro) didn't directly impact on results, as they won 7 out of 12 points in games after European ties. It's easy to speculate that their minds were elsewhere, a charge that could also be thrown at KuPS. They didn't pull up any trees in the competition, but will be looking for more.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Part two will follow, looking at Lahti's impressive late season form, and the battle to avoid relegation (which will also touch upon JJK).

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Far-flung Finns - Sami Hyypiä

(In the absence of domestic Finnish football now until 2013, we will be looking at how some prominent Finns across Europe are up to)

When former Liverpool and Finland central defender Sami Hyypiä retired from playing football in 2011, he said that his plans to get his coaching license would mean 100% or nothing. He must have made a good impression, he was appointed caretaker manager in April 2012 after the sacking of Robin Dutt, and the club finished the Bundesliga season in fifth place.

Lord of the manor

During the summer of 2012, he was appointed as full-time manager, sharing the responsibilities with coach Sascha Lewandowski (Hyypiä has not yet qualified to be a sole manager). A bold move, but early indications are that it was the right move. Ten matches into the league season, Leverkusen are currently in fourth place - nine points behind leaders Bayern Munich, albeit after a poor start which saw the side lose at promoted Eintracht Frankfurt and champions Dortmund.

The season defining moment so far has been a win at the Allianz Arena, a first win at Bayern since 1989 (which The Guardian's Rafael Honigstein reported as the lifting of a curse). A 2-1 win was a tremendous result, but also vital at that stage.

A promising start in the Europa League has also seen wins in Rosenborg and Vienna, but the club's ambition is to return to the Champions League, and Hyypiä is aware of that. In an interview with Bundesliga.com in pre-season, he acknowledged that the players got a taste last year, and want a return. Having kept Andre Schürrle and Lars Bender at the club, they are well placed.

Taking a training session

And so Leverkusen are now unbeaten in seven league games, in the last 16 of the DFB Pokal (where they travel to Wolfsburg) and are well placed to progress to the knockout stages of the Europa League. Some Liverpool forums have already championed the name of their former captain as a future manager, and he was very diplomatic when asked about the possibility when at Anfield for a friendly in August, when he praised Brendan Rodgers to the hilt.

Hyypiä is starting show that Germany is becoming a hotbed of young Finnish talent, and not just on the pitch. It's hard to imagine that he'd consider a return to Finland at this stage, but he's only 39, and has proved that the obvious step isn't the one he'll choose.

Eye on the ball

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Veikkausliiga week 33 - HJK champions, Haka drop to Ykkönen

The final round of matches of the season begun in fields of freezing cold and snow. Winter is coming, and it while the main drama was at the foot of the table, things weren't 100% certain at the top. The mathematics were simple. An HJK win or draw in Jyväskylä would give them a fourth straight championship. If they lost by one goal, Inter would need to win at Honka by eight goals. Highly unlikely, and so it proved.

HJK had stumbled along this season, not leading for a lot of the year while Inter led the way. But the pretenders were dropping points, and HJK's experience and squad depth powered them through. Faced with a tricky finish at JJK, the snow and ice were cleared enough to allow the game to go ahead, and HJK flew out of the blocks, with three goals in the first twenty minutes, goals from Sebastian Mannström, Rasmus Schüller and Joel Pohjanpalo. The title was won, and they looked like they were enjoying themselves. They went 0-5 ahead in the second half, a smooth finish from Berat Sadik and a second for Pohjanpalo. JJK took advantage of some early celebrations, Antto Hilska got two goals in a minute, before another Sadik goal was answered with a third JJK goal by Topi Järvinen.

The proposed opening of the stands for the HJK fans went ahead, and only a few well behaved supporters reached the players, allaying fears of what was fearer to be an officially sanctioned pitch invasion. HJK were presented with their trophy, and start a new era next year under Sixten Boström, and hopefully a better showing in the 2013/14 Champions League.

Outgoing HJK boss Antti Muurinen

HJK's win made Inter's game at Honka fairly meaningless - They were guaranteed second place, as they were four points ahead of local rivals TPS. Cup winners Honka had no chance of reaching the top half of the table, but ended the season on a high with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Inter. Jussi Vasara gave them a first half lead, before goals from Mäkijärvi and Äijälä gave them the three points, and ensured Inter's season finished with a whimper. Irakli Sirbiladze couldn't add to his goal tally for the season, and ends on 17 goals (although there may be some complaints about his second at TPS in September). Mika Ojala said farewell to the Inter fans on Twitter after the game, he's set to move to Häcken in Sweden for 2013.

 Koskinen gets in the way without much fight

Inter's silver medal

The foot of the table is where the drama of the day was (not that the Finnish broadcasters thought so, Kutonen showed JJK v HJK while Urho showed Honka v Inter). Jaro were the ones with the advantage, although only a point. They were visiting third placed TPS, whose own title ambitions drifted away due to some poor form when it mattered. The hosts took the lead after 41 minutes, Konsta Rasimus with his first goal from the club. But the lead didn't last long, Jaro equalised after a goal two minutes later from Thomas Kula, and Egyptian loan signing (from HJK) Sherif Ashraf scored his third goal in three games to win the match 2-1, and preserve Jaro's top flight status for another year. Their recent form wasn't too bad, winning three of the last six games, but they will need to improve hugely in 2013 to survive another season.

Jaro will be playing in the Veikkausliiga in 2013

 TPS enjoy their bronze medals

Highlights of TPS 1-2 Jaro

Jaro's win meant that Haka were relegated no matter what. Haka had won their first match in three months last week, and started the day with a chance of staying up, but they had to rely on Jaro dropping points. Haka's visit to Vaasa was dangerous, knowing they had to win, but facing a team who had nothing to play for but pride. But the hosts were reduced to ten men on half an hour, with O'Brien Woodbine dismissed, shortly followed by a goal from Brazilian Dema, giving Haka the lead. Both teams had chances to score afterwards, but the match finished 0-1, and despite finishing 2012 with two wins, Haka will be playing in the Ykkönen next season.

 The travelling Haka fans keep singing

Highlights of VPS 0-1 Haka

While the other two matches had little influence on titles, relegation or medals, they still provided excitement. This season's new boys Lahti have finished the season strongly, and will get an extra game in 2013 thanks to a top half finish. They confirmed fifth place with a 2-1 victory over a KuPS team who will just be glad the season is over. The Kuopio side took the lead with a goal from 17yr old Jerry Voutilainen, but Lahti took the points with goals from Nikolai Alho and Ngueukam. KuPS finish tenth, only four points ahead of Haka. At least they won't have any European football to distract them next year...

 Alho celebrates his first goal

The final match was in Mariehamn, fourth placed IFK hosting MYPA. The visitors took the lead after just seven minutes, Pekka Sihvola's 14th goal of the season. But IFK hit back through Mattias Wiklöf on 26 minutes, and an early second half penalty from Aleksei Kangaskolkka. But MYPA equalised, Canadian Riley O'Neill's goal making it 2-2, and that's how it finished. IFK stay 4th, but MYPA dropped to sixth after Lahti's win.

 Kangaskolkka puts his penalty away for goal number 16

Highlights of IFKM 2-2 MYPA

So that's the final round of matches, and a full season review will follow. HJK are the champions, Inter, TPS and Honka will enter the Europa League, while Haka will be playing in the second division in 2013, to be replaced by RoPS.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Veikkausliiga week 32 - HJK champions-elect, Jaro stumble, Haka find a lifeline

HJK have one hand and four fingers on the their fourth consecutive title, and the thumb merely hopes for a point at JJK, or if they lose, Inter to win at Honka with a goal difference swing of eight goals or fewer. Given that Betfair are currently quoting odds of 1/100 that they'll win the title, they're being charitable to Inter's chances.

HJK hadn't lost at home in the league since 2010, anything other than a home win was unlikely, despite Lahti's impressive late season form. Two wins and the title was staying in Helsinki. In the end, it was about as routine as a home 2-0 gets - a penalty early in the second half, converted by Berat Sadik, and a late confirmation from Demba Savage. A maximum points total of 64, is still a huge drop on last year's 81 under the same structure.

 Opening scorer Berat Sadik in action

It was Antti Muurinen's final home game in charge, he's to be replaced by former HJK player Sixten Boström for 2013, and at the end of the match he was hoisted around the ground by his players. Will the change lead to an improvement in HJK's European fortunes? HJK's final match is away to JJK on Saturday, before the party, and the hard work starting again. Lahti are at least assured of a top half finish, a good return to the top division, they end the season at home to KuPS.

 Muurinen bids farewell to the HJK fans

Highlights of HJK 2-0 Lahti

Inter meanwhile knew that they'd need to beat TPS to keep any realistic chance of the title - the intro of this review gives away that they failed. A stalemate, a red card, and a silver medal are all they have to show. The knowledge that rotten form when it counted cost them the title, that having the league's top scorer (Sirbiladze) and top assist provider (Mika Ojala) wasn't enough. Another crack at the Europa League will have been the minimum requirement, and Job Dragtsma will have to work hard to do better in 2013, without Ojala at least. The red card for Antunez for a shove won't have helped, but it will be a footnote in another missed chance for Inter.

Antunez before his red card


Highlights of Inter 0-0 TPS

At the foot of the table, the battle may have been further from the radar, but was no less keenly fought. Haka had failed to win since the 15th of July, since then they've suffered a 9-2 humiliation to TPS, and the subsequent change of manager... They were at home to Suomen Cup winners Honka, who have been undergoing their own problems (see previous review about financial peril) since their triumph. Nothing but a win would do (as results elsewhere proved). It was a tough match, seven bookings (two of them went to Haka captain, and player of the year, Shane Robinson), but only one goal, a neat finish from Juha Pirinen. Haka are still in the fight, and have one last match at VPS. The mathematics will be covered after the review of Jaro's match...

Haka enjoy a rare triumph

 
Highlights of Haka 1-0 Honka

So to Jaro... A home game against an IFK team who still had a chance of qualifying for Europe. Jaro were three points clear of Haka, with a superior goal difference. A win would give them as much chance of staying up as HJK have of winning the league - almost definite. Could things have started any better? It took eleven seconds for loan signing Sherif Ashraf to put Jaro ahead, before Jonas Emet made it 2-0 after twenty minutes with a low drive from outside the box. It all looked over for Haka, and perhaps Jaro knew it. Mariehamn pulled a goal back before the break through Jagne after a poor keeper error, but Frank Jonke re-established the two goal cushion four minutes into the second half. A fairly soft penalty award gave Kangaskolkka a goal on 82', and a late deflected strike from Amos Ekhalie deep into injury time took Jaro's win away.


Highlights of Jaro 3-3 IFK Mariehamn

The situation at the bottom is this: Jaro are away to TPS on Saturday. Win, and they stay up. Draw, and a Haka win will keep Haka up. If Jaro lose, and Haka draw, then it comes down to goal difference. Jaro are currently on -24, Haka on -26. It's going to be more exciting at the bottom than the top this weekend.

Two other matches remained, and forgive me for not giving them a huge amount of coverage. KuPS were mathematically safe as a result of Jaro's defeat at the weekend, and after a season which had great highs (beating Bursaspor in the Europa League), a tenth placed finish and cup runners-up is a pretty poor showing. A home match against VPS meant more to the visitors, who needed to win to keep a chance of finishing in the top half, but it ended up with three points to KuPS. Ali Koljonen opened the scoring, before Steven Morrissey's fifteenth goal of the season levelled the match. The winning goal came from Dudu, and that was it.

 Dudu gets the praise (courtesy of Futisblogi Puoliaika)

The final match was MYPA versus JJK. The hosts were made safe in the top half by VPS's defeat, but needed to make sure an extra home game for 2013. But the nerves were frayed by an early goal by Mikko Manninen, and it took until the 74th minute for MYPA to get level, an own goal by Tuomanen, before Pekka Sihvola's 13th league goal of the season sealed the win. Sihvola is now fourth in the Goal King race, a decent return in his first season since his move from Haka.

 
Highlights of MYPA 2-1 JJK