Friday, September 28, 2012

Suomen Cup final 2012 - Honka vs KuPS

Whose name will be on the cup this year?

This season's Suomen cup reaches it's climax this weekend with the match between Honka of Espoo and KuPS of Kuopio. Both teams have tasted recent defeat in finals, and have a chance to write their names in the history books. KuPS have won the Suomen Cup twice in their history, most recently in 1989; yet Honka have never won the trophy.

The clash between eighth and tenth place in the league this weekend represents their only chances of playing continental football - KuPS reaching last year's final provided them with this season's surprising run to the third qualifying round of the Europa League.

For Honka, this has been a wait of four months since their penalty shootout win over holders HJK at the end of many. They were runners-up in 2007 and 2008, losing on penalties to Tampere (07) and after extra-time to HJK (08), are they due some success? As the higher-placed team in the league, they may think that they are the slight favourite, and at the time of writing, they are with the UK based bookmakers.

 Honka after their semi-final win

But will they be able to pull it off? KuPS have been poor domestically this season, yet seem to be able to win one-off games, including Turkish side Bursaspor in Europe. Despite losing the final last year to the 'home' team, they've returned again, and despite their slight underdog status, they're no pushover. Unfortunately they spent midweek getting used to the Sonera turf losing 4-1 to HJK... Maybe they're lulling Honka into a false sense of security?

KuPS in their 1-0 win over Bursaspor - this is their chance for a repeat

This is a big game for both sides, and a chance for silverware and a 25,000 payday (plus the associated money for competing in Europe in 2013). Glory is within touching distance, and next season we could be using a photo such as this...

2011 champions HJK

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Veikkausliiga week 28 - HJK show their true colours

In the previous review of action, we covered the possibility of a four-horse race for the Finnish title. Well this midweek, we've seen the first change of leadership in the title race in over a month, and it was the 2011 champions who have got their noses in front, with five matches remaining.

The midweek visitors to Helsinki were KuPS, fresh from a weekend win over MYPA, and with an eye on their weekend Cup Final against Honka, conveniently in the same stadium. HJK started the day two points behind Inter Turku, having drawn 1-1 with them on Sunday. HJK made seven changes to the starting line-up, and the changes were evident in the final score.

Demba Savage opened the scoring in the 16th minute after Rasmus Schüller took advantage of lazy KuPS defending. From then on, it was the turn of Akseli Pelvas to take the stage. Pelvas hadn't scored since the 3-3 draw with VPS in early August, but here he scored three times - a goals after 27, 46 and a 90th minute penalty to take his league total for the season to eight goals. An 88th minute goal from Dudu won't have done much to ease KuPS. The 4-1 result leaves them in tenth place, but other results may have them looking nervously. We'll cover the top of the table later...

Akseli Pelvas celebrates his third goal

Highlights of HJK 4-1 KuPS

Meanwhile, at the bottom... The momentum has shifted hugely - bottom club Jaro, who have been bottom of the table for most of the season, entertained the other cup finalists Honka. But Jaro managed their first win in nine games - a first half goal from Papa Niang proved the winner. Jaro's two recent signings Sherif Ashraf and former Liverpool youth captain Steven Irwin have settled in well, Jaro have yet to lose with them in the team. Honka are left in eighth place, with a lot of work left to do if they're to finish in the top half of the table, and earn the extra home match next season.

Highlights of Jaro 1-0 Honka

The big losers of Jaro's win were Haka. They were away to MYPA, and knew that with KuPS' victory at the weekend, points were vital. Haka were without a victory under new coach Juha Malinen, who was appointed in the wake of the 9-2 defeat to TPS. Haka were holding on until the 82nd minute, when MYPA substitute Sasha Anttilainen earned three deserved points. Haka are now bottom of the table on 24 points, two points behind Jaro, and five behind KuPS. Haka haven't won since the last meeting with MYPA in mid-July, and have the hardest run-in of the three with home matches against HJK and Inter to come. It doesn't look good, but the next five games could yet provide more surprise.

The title outsider IFK Mariehamn were at home to Lahti, and perhaps the home fans thought they may keep pace with the leaders after Aleksei Kangaskolkka opened the scoring after barely 20 seconds. But Lahti came back fighting, showing the spirit that had won them their last four league games, and goals from captain Mikko Hauhia and Ariel Ngueukam gave them a half-time lead. But a 70th minute goal from Bosnian Ermin Gadžo levelled the match at 2-2. Ngueukam was sent off for a second booking, and the match finished 2-2. Lahti's late season form continues to keep them in the top half of the table, albeit with a negative goal difference.

Ngueukam challenges Gadžo

Highlights of IFKM 2-2 Lahti

The pre-match leaders Inter faced another away game in Jyväskylä, after their hard fought draw against HJK at the weekend. JJK have been hovering in the bottom half of the table for most of the season, and have been doing just enough to keep ahead of the relegation battle. Inter dominated as expected, Mika Ojala with the best chance. But a 0-0 draw was the outcome, and Inter coach Job Dragtsma could not hide his disappointment at the end that they could not score.

The final match was TPS v VPS in Turku. TPS needed to win to keep up with HJK and Inter, while VPS had lost three of the previous four, and were falling behind in their bid to finish in the top half. The first half was goalless, but the match was decided by Dennis Okaru in the 66th minute, a near-post finish after a clever pass by substitute Mikko Hyyrynen. Okaru's 7th league goal of the season was enough, and left TPS just a point behind HJK and Inter. VPS are currently seventh, on 39 points with a goal difference of +1.

Goalscorer Dennis Okaru

Highlights of TPS 1-0 VPS

That pretty much leaves the title race as below:

HJK              P28              Pts 51          GD +22
Inter              P28              Pts 51          GD +19
TPS              P28              Pts 50           GD +24
IFK               P28              Pts 46          GD +8

TPS's goal difference, bloated by the nine goals scored against Haka, is the superior, but they still have a match against Inter, although a final day match at home to Jaro may give them a clear idea of what they'll need to do, if they are still competing.

HJK have three away games, but no matches against the rest of the top five. But they need to ensure they keep an eye on the goal difference in case of any slip ups.

Inter still have tricky fixtures in TPS and Mariehamn, a home game with KuPS, and have to travel to Haka and Honka.

Five games left, five more weeks of twists and turns.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Veikkausliiga week 27 - Back to four contenders?

After the international break, league football resumed with the top and bottom places still to be decided, and this weekend there were matches between first and second, and first bottom and second bottom.

Starting at the foot of the table, the match between Haka and Jaro was never destined to be a classic - the home side hadn't won a match since mid July, while Jaro's form had picked up with draws against HJK in Helsinki, and against KuPS. In the driving rain, there was effort from both sides with no end result, although both sides had chances. Jaro coach Alexei Eremenko said he was happy with the result, but won't be happy that Maksim Vasilev was sent off in the second half for two yellow cards.

Alexei Eremenko looking casual on the sidelines

A point for both sides was made to look worse by the result in Kuopio, where KuPS defeated MYPA 2-0. KuPS were in recent danger of being sucked back into the relegation fight, falling into the usual trap of almost focusing on the Cup (they play Honka in the final next weekend). They have stretched the gap over Jaro to six points (the lead over Haka is five points) with six matches remaining. After a goalless first half, Pyry Kärkkäinen scored after 57 minutes. MYPA almost equalised through Olajide Williams, before substitute Dudu made the points safe. KuPS still have tricky fixtures remaining, visiting HJK on Wednesday, and hosting Inter Turku a week later.

Kuismala fishes the ball out of the net (photo courtesy of Futisblogi Puoliaika)

KuPS's Suomen Cup opponents Honka were in action on Saturday, hosting a TPS side who still had a realistic title chance after their dramatic comeback against Inter last week. Only 867 people turned out for the match, and again saw a goalless first half. The deciding goal was scored with a header from Dennis Okaru just after the hour, and just after Honka had been reduced to ten men after Yaghoubi was sent off for a second booking. Honka remain in eighth place, while TPS move to 47 points, and within three points of neighbours (and leaders) Inter.

Highlights of Honka 0-1 TPS

While TPS are in third place and definitely in contention, IFK Mariehamn have slowly been creeping their way back into the title race. A few weeks ago, they hit a rough patch of form, but have since won eight points from twelve with a win away to VPS, on a windy day in Vaasa. Mattias Wiklöf scored twice in each half to give IFKM a 2-0 lead, and Tommy Wirtanen scored his first goal since his move from Örebro to make it 3-0 with a good counter-attack. Prolific Jamaican striker Steven Morrissey scored a consolation goal for VPS, but the match finished 1-3. IFKM are now on 45 points, only five points behind Inter, who they visit on Octover 8th. VPS have now lost three of their last four matches, remain on 39 points, and they're unlikely to reach the Europa League as a result.

Highlights of VPS 1-3 IFK Mariehamn

JJK visited Lahti on Sunday, for a match which may have a big bearing on next season. The first half saw no goals, but a yellow card for each team, before Mikko Hauhia scored for Lahti after 54 minutes. Eero Markkenen equalised a minute later for JJK, his first goal in two months. But Lahti took the three points with a late goal by Hietanen. Lahti rise to sixth place with the win, JJK remain in ninth. With the league structure as it is, finishing in the top six brings the benefit of an extra home match next season (see this article by Egan Richardson which explains more), so the win for Lahti could mean more than just a late season boost.

Match-winner Konsta Hietanen

And so the top of the table clash. Champions HJK at home to leaders Inter Turku at a wet and windy Sonera Stadium. Inter threw away a 3-1 lead at home to TPS the previous week, ending with a 3-3 draw. HJK had won four of the last five matches. With six matches remaining afterwards, an Inter win would result in a five point lead... An HJK win would take them top for the first time in weeks.

Some wild shooting dominated the opening exchanges, but Inter scored first, a free kick launched into the box was diverted in via the head of Juho Mäkelä, although the HJK TV director went easy and awarded it to Joni Kauko... Inter then had the ball in the net again, but was correctly ruled out for offside. HJK equalised in the 61st minute, a free kick taken on the right wing flew into the goal. Rasmus Schüller was the scorer, and claimed he meant it, although he couldn't have expected Inter goalkeeper Stef Doedee to flap underneath it.

Highlights of HJK 1-1 Inter

Both sides had chances to win afterwards, but some good goalkeeping and poor finishing saw the match end 1-1. Inter are on 50 points from 27 games, HJK on 48 points. Both sides have a goal difference of +19, while TPS are on 47 points with a goal difference of +23, courtesy of the freak 9-2 scoreline against Haka last month. IFKM are on 45 points, a goal difference of +9.

(See the Escape To Suomi Twitter this week for a chance to win an official ETS mug)

Friday, September 07, 2012

World Cup qualifying - group I for impossble?

So it begins again. Just two months after the end of a surprisingly good Euro 2012, qualifying begins for the 2014 World Cup, to be held in Brazil. This time there are nine European groups competing for those spots in the Finals, and of the fifty-three teams involved, perhaps half will have a reasonable shout of getting there. Finland is not in that half.

The Finns are in Group I, with World and European champions Spain, recent World and European champions France, and Belarus and Georgia. A five team group has it's pros and cons, but for a team which has just dropped twenty-four places in the FIFA rankings, the lack of playing two extra competitive games could prove dangerous in the long run. Coach Mixu Paatelainen has stated his goal is to produce a team which can potentially qualify for the bloated Euro 2016, but they'll do well to rack up more than a handful of points this time around.

 Paatelainen knows the size of the task

Finland's last match was an entertaining 3-3 draw with Northern Ireland in Belfast, and it wasn't fun for those fans of quality football, save for the third Finnish goal (a lovely free kick from Përparim Hetemaj). Their first qualifier is at home to a France side yet again dealing with the fall-out after a Euro 2012 which promised much, but ended up with the same in-fighting, strops and player bans.

 The Finns celebrate the third goal in Belfast

With no minnow (or is it Finland?) in the group, points against rivals are crucial, and under new manager Didier Deschamps, now may be a good time to take on the French. France lost their first qualifier for Euro 2012 at home to Belarus, while in qualifying for the 2010 World Cup they lost to Austria, and only just beat the Faroe Islands.

There have been several suggestions in recent years in support of a pre-qualifying competition amongst the lower-ranked nations, where the winners get the chance to compete with the larger nations. Clearly this was aimed to reduce the games between, for example, Spain and San Marino, but how else for the lower ranked teams to meet these opponents?

The French visit Helsinki this evening (Spain visit in September 2013), and while the odds on an upset are slim, Finland need to play the big teams in competitive games to realistically improve their FIFA rankings, especially after the Baltic Cup debacle (the summer matches against Latvia and Estonia were deemed not to count towards rankings as the fourth official was not FIFA accredited).

 Try telling Latvia that the Baltic Cup doesn't count...

The formula for working out ranking points is based as follows:

M (match result, W/L/D) x I (importance of match, eg friendly or qualifier) x T (ranking of opposing team, worked out as 200 minus their current position) x C (their confederation, eg UEFA).

A victory over France tonight would therefore be worth 3 x 2.5 x 185 x 1 = 1387.5, compared to the 99 points they earned for the draw with Northern Ireland. Results like this will be vital if they're to get decent seedings for future tournaments. Their 2012 point average is currently 125, yet the soon to disappear 2008 average is 228 so they're likely to drop much further if they get a bad start in this campaign.

The Finnish fans I speak to will be watching the France game with hope rather than expectation, and even a point will be a good start (worth 387.5 ranking points). But the group is a marathon not a sprint, and we'll see how a competitive Paatelainen side fares.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Veikkausliiga week 24 - Three adrift at the bottom

Next season's guaranteed new team have been confirmed (RoPS have won the Ykkonen at a canter, they're currently seventeen points clear with four games to go), and one would imagine there would be an almighty battle to avoid being replaced by them. Well, at the moment the battle is more like three moody lazy teenagers, hoping that their two mates are lazier than them… The teams who are getting further and further adrift at the bottom of the top division are KuPS, Haka and Jaro. They have nine games (Haka have eight) left to get enough points to avoid relegation or the play-off match against the second-placed team, who are currently SJK.

This weekend's fixtures involving the three clubs all took place on Sunday, with Jaro hosting MYPA, and Haka travelling to JJK, with KuPS visiting IFK Mariehamn. Bottom side Jaro were already two points behind Haka with a game in hand, and things started badly with Pekka Sihvola opening the scoring in the 29th minute. Sihvola has now scored eight goals in his last five league games, and the scoreline quickly became 2-0 and 3-0 towards the end. Jaro remain bottom, and luckily Haka's attempts at apparently playing rush goalie are keeping them ahead on goal difference. Jaro have lost their last five matches, and they won't be expecting much change from their visit to Helsinki in their next match on September 14th.

Highlights of Jaro 0-3 MYPA

Haka visited Jyväskylä and carried on where they've left off in recent games - they shipped five goals, seventeen in their last three, and have got one point from the last twenty-four available. Already missing Obi Metzger after his red card against Lahti, they went into the interval 1-0 down. But after the break, they conceded three goals in fourteen minutes, including a brace from Mikko Innanen. An injury time goal sealed a 5-0 victory, and has now pretty much confirmed JJK's participation in next season's competition. Haka meanwhile have a goal difference of -25, two goals worse off than Jaro. They may come to regret their recent thrashings come October.

 Benno Haslian celebrates JJK's fifth goal

The other struggling side in action were KuPS, visiting Mariehamn. They had picked up a bit of form after their European exit, and had won their Suomen Cup semi-final in midweek, but were facing a team who still had distant title ambitions. That they lasted until the 78th minute without conceding a goal is a credit, but in the end substitute Bosnian Ermin Gadžo scored twice, and KuPS went back to Kuopio with nothing other than relief that their nearest rivals all lost by greater margins.

Highlights of IFK Mariehamn 2-0 KuPS

The remaining matches between the three teams are as follows: Jaro v KuPS on Fri 14th Sept, Haka v Jaro on Sun 23rd Sept, KuPS v Haka on Sun 7th Oct (subject to change). These matches will have huge bearings on the final positions, and we can hope that they don't end up as damp squibs.

 The bottom three as it stands

The mid-table Friday night match between Lahti and Honka was actually the most entertaining game of the weekend. The visitors finally learned their Cup final opponents the previous night, and went ahead through another Tim Väyrynen goal after six minutes. It was the 19-year-old's tenth goal of the season, nine of which have opened the scoring, a fantastic record. Unfortunately for him and his Espoo-based teammates, Lahti responded with three goals in the second half. Recent signing Ariel Ngueukam scored twice in three minutes, and Drilon Shala scored a third goal, which proved crucial. A late consolation goal in injury time from Honka's Antti Mäkijärvi meant little, and Lahti won 3-2. It was Lahti's third win in four, and leaves them on the outskirts of the race for the Europa League. Honka are ninth, and while it's highly unlikely that they'd be drawn into the relegation battle, they have little else other than the cup final against KuPS in four weeks time.

Highlights of Lahti 3-2 Honka

I suppose the title race itself is what the people want. Sunday's early match was between the teams in second and third place, with TPS hosting champions HJK. HJK had played an entertaining 3-3 draw with Athletic Bilbao on Thursday, finally confirming their elimination from Europe 9-3 on aggregate. This match was virtually over by half-time, first half goals from Mika Väyrynen (again, a tidy chip over the keeper) and Juho Mäkelä saw HJK take a 2-0 lead, although TPS did have chances. A 90th minute goal from Santeri Mäkinen merely served to maintain a decent goal difference lead for TPS. HJK are now three points ahead on 43 points, TPS are third on 40, level with Mariehamn but with the superior GD.

 Highlights of TPS 1-2 HJK

The final match kicked off on Monday evening with leaders Inter knowing that they would need a win to reclaim their four point lead, and win they did. A routine 2-0 victory over VPS took them to 47 points, with Irakli Sirbiladze celebrating his Georgian call-up with goals in each half. The striker is now top scorer with 13 goals, and will be sure to add more in the remaining nine league games.

Next week sees a break for international football, with Finland opening their qualification for the 2014 World Cup with a home match against France, followed by a game between some Finnish legends and some former international stars, billed as a Respect match. Finland's team features Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyypiä and Joonas Kolkka, and will be a chance for the fans to see their heroes one more time.