Showing posts with label Europa League. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Europa League. Show all posts

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jere the pacemaker

Here is a guest post by my Finnish Football Show co-host Mark Hayton from - talking about one of Finland's brightest prospects - defender Jere Uronen.

It's not easy being a full back. Usually, you face the opposition's fastest or most skillful player. Your immediate support are centre backs and wingers (translated: guys barking orders and guys ignoring orders), and the role has little to no recognition - noticed only when there's a gap or a mistake and even for the best full backs in history such from Roberto Carlos to Philip Lahm often had the ignominious "...for a full-back" suffix added to their list of accolades. 

In the modern game this is magnified as the role of the full back has evolved. In the 1990s, full-back and wing-back were two different roles, yet in the last decade someone decided to merge those two roles and not tell anyone. Modern wingers are essentially wing-forwards (in old money) and it's rare these days to see defences set up with high lines or offside traps so basically intrepid full backs cover byline to byline.

One of our own currently mastering this tactical evolution is Jere Uronen, who has also managed to quietly navigate another of modern football's tricky areas: game time. When Genk came knocking in 2016, the then 20 year old had already racked up 100 career games in the Swedish league and game time in European competition. During this time he garnered recognition from the national set up, but little fuss was made in the media about the young Turkulainen blessed with pace, good control and positional sense. Focus, as usual, fell not on the players covering grass, but on those in fancy track suits on exotic training pitches nearing first team considerations but not what we called back in the 90s "learning the trade". 

Genk's Europa League run this year took them to within a hair's breath of a semi-final round jam packed with Europe's elite. Against a strong Celta Vigo, the Belgians, our man ever-present of course, were competitive, threatening and were it not for (former KuPS defender) Omar Colley's off-night in the first leg, could have returned from Spain with more than just the two away goals. Semi-finalists in the Belgian Cup and currently on track to return to European competition next season, Genk and Jere are an improving side and have made themselves a comfortable reputation for being a testing ground for players heading to the big leagues. 

So, as the Sima cracks open this Vappu and the discussions around the plight of Finnish players rev up, remember Jere. A young man with talent and determination not taking a fast track to the subs bench but working his way up the football pyramid, who earned his Vappu through graft, through competition, through silverware and continental experience. Raise a glass and give him some recognition to his achievements, he's worked hard for them... even for a full back.

Many thanks to Mark for this - you can catch up with his regular updates on the national team and players at

Monday, October 12, 2015

Euro 2016 - too little, too late

The list is getting smaller. More people are RSVPing to the invitation. Despite the break-up of Europe in the last quarter of a century, these latecomers are promptly accepting. The list of European countries who've never played at a major tournament is getting smaller. Yet Finland remain on that roster.

San Marino.
Faroe Islands.

With 24 teams qualifying for next summer's tournament, it seemed almost harder to fail than to make it. But a lot of countries have risen to the challenge, boosted by confidence and perhaps the (early) complacency of the bigger nations. Iceland and Wales were improving prior to this competition, while Northern Ireland, Austria and Albania qualified ahead of expectations.

Finland's group, at the time of the draw and with the benefit of hindsight, was the best possible. The top seeds were Greece, who'd made the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Hungary and Romania were tough with good (great?) historical teams. Northern Ireland hadn't qualified for anything in 30 years. Faroe Islands are still a level above the true minnows.

After winning the opening match away to Faroe Islands 1-3, the hard way after conceding a sloppy opener, it was all going perfectly to plan. But it was all downhill from there. One point from the next five matches, a draw at home to a dreadful Greek side, was terminal.

In defeats to Hungary home and away, in Belfast and to visiting Romania, Finland looked pedestrian, ponderous and without the perspective to see what was wrong. Mixu Paatelainen was the manager with the backing of the Finnish FA, but looked utterly clueless and left behind while other sides played to their strengths. He persisted with the Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), designed almost to hamstring the players rather than improve them. A good coach should make the team better than the sum of their parts - how can a side with Roman Eremenko, Tim Sparv and Niklas Moisander look so impotent? The blind faith is admirable, but did Teemu Pukki do enough to deserve his regular starting place? 

Paatelainen was sacked after the Hungary defeat in June, where a very public recruitment process led to former New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe's appointment - but not until January as he had more pressing television commitments (he'll do well in Finland with that). Long time assistant Markku Kanerva stepped into the breach, to his credit he did well with two wins followed by two draws.

Maybe it was due to the handbrake being removed, or the players being allowed more freedom in those four fixtures. The side moved to a 4-4-2, Pohjanpalo scoring three times and there seemed a bit more vibrancy. Despite the loss of Eremenko to injury, Moisander only featuring once and suspensions at various points to Sparv, Hetemaj and Halsti; there was more positivity and it's got to be a good sign at the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser in Bucharest.

The Olympiastadion is now closed for renovations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will all be played at the Ratina stadium in Tampere. It's a much tougher group (Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey) with only one guaranteed qualifier. Due to the poor performances under Mixu, Finland's FIFA ranking dropped so low that they are the bottom seed in that group. Had the draw been made with October's rankings, Finland could have been as high as third seeds.

Most of the players (if not all) will still be available for selection come September 2016, while the year will give extra development time to prospects like Thomas Lam and Jere Uronen. Lukas Hradecky and Pohjanpalo cemented their places as starters and the U21s have made a decent start to qualifying for their Euro adventure.

Ultimately the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is a failure. Mixu should have been relieved of his job earlier, if not after before. I don't know a lot about Hans Backe, my main doubt is of the FA's selection process, going for an easy option, possibly the cheapest. Kanerva restored some pride and performances, it's unclear yet if he'll remain on Backe's staff.

Onwards and upwards, OI SUOMI ON!

Friday, January 03, 2014

Redemption for RoPS - from Perumal to Europe

In 2011, Rovaniemi Palloseura (RoPS) made international news as they were dragged through the courts after Singaporean criminals were found to have fixed certain outcomes in as many as 28 matches involving the side. Wilson Raj Perumal received a two-year prison sentence, while nine players (seven Zambian, two Georgian) were also implicated, and raised several issues over the integration of foreign footballers moving to Finland.

The Zambian players in court claimed that no-one coerced them into their actions. It was circumstances that led them down their path, that they felt no connection to the club or town, and they were bored. The RoPS coach at the time, former Wales youth player John Allen, told the Daily Telegraph “The first time we had any idea that something was going on was when Christopher Musonda was taken into questioning after morning training." Some of the players involved still ply their trade, Chanda Mwaba even had a trial with Ykkönen side Viikingit last March. The fixing issue most commonly bet on was the concession of late goals - Perumal's organisations made huge sums from goals conceded by RoPS between the 76th and 90th minutes.

Perumal also had links with two other Finnish clubs. Two Zambian AC Oulu players (the Yobe brothers Dominic and Donewell) admitted taking bribes with the intention of giving away a penalty. Dominic had moved to champions HJK afterwards, but the contract was terminated shortly afterwards. Tampere United, Finnish title winners as recently as 2007, were suspended by the Finnish FA after taking large sums from a Singapore-based firm with ties to Perumal, and were subject to a money laundering investigation as a result. As of the start of 2014, the club are still officially banned.

Forward to September 2013, and RoPS have defeated Kuopion Palloseura in the Finnish Cup final in Helsinki, and with it earning a place in the 2014/15 Europa League, returning to Europe for the first time since 1990. The club had gone through several changes in the intervening two years, including relegation from the top division, a change of leadership in the boardroom, and an overhaul of their scouting policy. In the aftermath of the cup success, I spoke to Mikko Perälä of TopSpot, the company entrusted by RoPS to overhaul player recruitment and integration.

Mikko told me, over a herbal tea in St James's Park, about their mission - it's not just scouting footballers for a club. It's to encourage African players to integrate into a new way of life, in particular the challenges of being a professional sportsman in Rovaniemi, near the Arctic Circle in the north of the country. He says " I hope we can keep on working with them and together research and improve the process of integrating African players to the European style of training, playing and most importantly living. It is always the outside pitch factors that in the end matter the most. It is a learning process for us, for the player and for the club."

TopSpot's track record in Finland is impressive - previous discoveries Dominic Chatto (Inter Turku) and Dickson Nwakaeme (KuPS) were big successes at those clubs. But issues about their development arose after concerns that they were only utilised for their physical and instinctive qualities, and they did not become better footballers as a result of their coaching.

Dickson Nwakaeme soaking up the Kuopio sun

Mikko told me about another of his African prodigies, whose raw talent could see him compete in one of Europe's stronger leagues, but whose only motivation was money and that his attitude would prevent true success. But there are signs that RoPS' new strategy is paying off - the Suomen Cup victory and retaining their Veikkausliiga status was key, and hiring respected coach Juha Malinen all lead to progression for the club. The more recent African imports to Rovaniemi have been of good stock, with central defender Faith Friday Obilor (another TopSpot find) making a huge contribution to the defence. Mikko says there are only a handful of coaches in Finland who he'd trust to develop the players his group finds, Malinen being one of them.

RoPS have been busy signing new Finnish players for 2014, and the club themselves have signed a long-term deal with FC Santa Claus to use them as a 'farm club' to develop future players. The club are understandably cautious, with CEO Antti Hietakangas saying in 2011 “signing foreign players is not the wrong way, it’s just not my way.” RoPS finished 11th (out of twelve teams) in the Veikkausliiga in 2013, having been promoted in 2012, and spending the previous decade between the top two divisions.

Unfortunately the RoPS Europa League adventure, which will begin in qualifying round one in July, will need to take place away from home - UEFA have deemed their Keskuskenttä home as unsuitable to host continental football, and Oulu (over 100 miles away) is likely to become their temporary home. The prize money for taking part (around 140k EUR) will be a bonus, while the local city council have publicly stated their admiration for keeping Rovaniemi on the map.

RoPS continue to survive as an advert for caution, but also with cautious optimism. The club still have a long way to go, and won't go from 11th to top half overnight... But Malinen did exactly that with Lahti last season - and as long as Europe doesn't become too much of a distraction, the darkest days could now be far behind them.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Out of Europe - Who beat the Finns?

After all the build-up, the excitement, and the waiting from October until now... Each Finnish club who entered European competition for 2013/14 were eliminated after one tie. Some did ok, others just didn't turn up. Here's a quick summary of their (short) campaigns.

HJK - Champions League qualifying round two

New HJK coach Sixten Boström took over at the end of 2012, with the brief to reach the group stage of either UEFA competition. HJK drew Estonian champions Nõmme Kalju in the second qualifying round, and put in two pretty tepid performances, and were duly eliminated. The first leg, in Helsinki, ended 0-0, while Kalju won 2-1 in Tallinn, and go through to round three, where even elimination will be rewarded with a Europa League play-off.

Kalju's Ceesay celebrates his goal against HJK

There has been much speculation to what will happen to HJK - at the time of writing, they're second in the table but have rarely looked fluid, while the big name signings of Teemu Tainio and Mikael Forssell haven't really clicked. Boström will surely be given the rest of the year at least to ensure a fifth straight Veikkausliiga title... But the pressure he complained of will now be even greater. Meanwhile, Kalju will play Czech title-holders Plzeň.

Inter Turku - Europa League qualifying round one

Last year's runners-up had gone through a rotten period in the league, and continued it into Europe. A 1-1 draw in the Faroe Islands against Vikinur was followed by a 0-1 defeat in Turku. But there was plenty of controversy.

Bouwman had a chance to level from the spot

Before the second leg, huge sums were traded on Betfair that both teams would score, far more than for a normal game. Both teams were awarded penalties in the second half, for fairly innocuous incidents. But Vikingur scored theirs, while Inter's Pim Bouwman missed. Inter eliminated, and lodged a complaint with UEFA, but it won't make any difference. Vikingur lost 0-7 on aggregate to Romanian side Petrolul in the second round.

TPS - Europa League qualifying round one

Again suffering an inconsistent start, TPS had finished 2012 in third place, and with it a spot in Europe. They were drawn against Luxembourg's Jeunesse Esch, and on paper it seemed like a good draw. It was the away trip to the Grand Duchy where the foundations were laid.

Chinese midfielder Wang (green), who scored two goals against TPS

A 2-0 defeat, and a shoddy performance, set the tone. Even a 2-1 home win was rendered useless, where Wayne Brown also missed a penalty. TPS exited after a 2-3 aggregate defeat, and Jeunesse were knocked out in the next round by Latvian club Ventspils, 1-5 on aggregate.

IFK Mariehamn - entered Europa League at qualifying round one

Mariehamn won their place in Europe thanks to the Fair Play route, and certainly made a big deal of their first foray into continental football. They were drawn against Azerbaijan's Inter Baku, a huge journey. They made the trip, but it proved costly - in a 1-1 draw, they lost key players Diego Assis and Dever Orgill for the season, after fouls from Baku defender Bruce Abdoulaye (dubbed the Butcher of Baku).

From the first leg in Baku

With the away goal, they returned to Åland with hope of a famous victory - but a 0-2 home defeat meant they left after just one home game. Mariehamn played well in parts, and showed plenty of spirit. But shorn of their two key attacking threats (they were already without Petteri Forsell), the rest of 2013 will be a struggle. Inter Baku lost 1-2 on aggregate to Norwegians Tromsø in round two.

FC Honka - Europa League qualifying round two

The 2012 Suomen Cup winners entered at round two - and were given a difficult task against Poland's Lech Poznań. The first leg was played in Vantaa (due to UEFA's ground regulations), however that was overshadowed by some naughty behaviour from the Lech fans, while the Police were accused of being over-zealous, which has started a debate about the cost of policing football. Lech won the first leg 1-3.

Not pictured - the ball

The second leg in Poland started with a bang - Honka keeper Viitala was recklessly fouled in the box after four minutes, two yellow cards were dished out, Lech scored, and Honka equalised - all before the eighth minute. A second Lech goal before half-time was the final one, and it ended Lech 2-1 Honka (5-2 agg) in front of over 15000 people. Honka did well, some neat play and committed defending, but the gap in quality was apparent. Lech progress to a third round tie against Žalgiris of Lithuania.


By exiting at the first time for each club, Finland's UEFA co-efficient has already taken a big hit. Bosnia-Herzegovina have overtaken the Finns, while Kazakhstan and Iceland's representatives have improved their rankings. If the 2014/15 competitions have the same number of entrants (accounting for competition winners), Finland will lose a second round place for the cup winners.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Introducing Lech Poznań - Honka's European opponents

Honka open their Europa League campaign this week in the second qualifying round, where they meet Polish club Lech Poznań - runners up in last year's Ekstraklasa (Polish top division). The first leg in Finland, will be played on Thursday 18th July. The return leg in Poland will be played on Thursday 25th July.

Friend of the site Ryan Hubbard, founder of the superb EKSTRAKLASAreview website, has written a fine preview of Honka's opponents for us to read before (during and after!) the tie. He has also hosted a short preview of Honka that I wrote for his site, have a look here.

Welcome to Manchester Poznań

After a sluggish start to to 2012/13 season, perennial challengers picked themselves up quickly to battle their greatest enemies Legia Warszawa for the Polish Ekstraklasa title. With around a month of the season remaining the Kolejorz had already guaranteed at least a European spot, however a 1-0 Matchday 28 defeat in Warsaw effectively handed the title to their rivals.

With their runners-up spot confirmed with a few games to spare, Lech enter European competition for the fifth time in the last six years - only their fifth-placed finish in 2010/11 preventing them from taking part the following season. Whilst their domestic season wasn't the greatest in 2010/11, they will be aiming to replicate their Europa League campaign from that year. On their way to a last-32 defeat to eventual finalists Braga, they managed fantastic wins against both Red Bull Salzburg and Manchester City, whilst twice holding Juventus to a draw.


By far the strongest part of the current Lech Poznań team is their vast midfield. With coach Mariusz Rumak expected to field five men across the middle, they can be difficult to break down whilst able to create a lot of chances both for themselves and the strikers.

With Hungarian Gergo Lovrencsics and Finnish Kasper Hämäläinen netting ten between them last term, Lech have strengthened their attacking prowess with the addition of Zagłębie Lubin winger Szymon Pawłowski - a more than adequate replacement for Aleksander Tonev, who departed for Aston Villa.

Whilst defensive midfield pair Rafał Murawski and Łukasz Trałka may not have had their strongest season, they are still a very formidable pair - both finding their way into Polish national squads over the last eighteen months.  Rumak also has the option to include Polish youth prodigy Karol Linetty in his middle five - the eighteen year-old led the Polish U17 side to third-place in last year's European Championships.

Finland international Kasper Hämäläinen


The problem for Lech is that their strikers have been known to struggle when it comes to converting chances. Whilst Łukasz Teodorczyk scored a hatful in autumn at Polonia Warszawa, his winter move didn't quite yield the same results. In the capital, Teodorczyk played the role of a support striker excellently - grabbing almost as many assists as he did goals. However since his move to Poznań, he has been played in a lone striker role - and the difference showed. But after scoring his first Lech goal late in the season, we have seen more glimpses of the Teodorczyk which earned a call-up to the Polish National team. A hat-trick in a friendly against Danish side FC Nordsjaelland just last week confirming that "Teo" hasn't lost his abilities.

Whilst Teodorczyk's first goal in the blue shirt brought a much needed confidence boost, his fellow striker Bartosz Ślusarski needs more than confidence. Despite netting __ league goals last term, he was widely thought of as one of the weakest strikers in the league. With the amount of chances both self-created and handed to him, Ślusarski could have scored many more, and the signing of Teodorczyk only went to show that Ślusarski's goal record alone wasn't enough for Mariusz Rumak.


Whilst Lech have been struggling to field a full side during their pre-season friendlies, they can now count on the return of six players for the tie with Honka. Along with the aforementioned Ślusarski and Linetty, Kebba Ceesay, Tomasz Kędziora, Patryk Wolski and Szymon Pawłowski should all be available for the first leg.

However there are still a few doubts in the Kolejorz camp; Barry Douglas, Rafał Murawski and Luis Henriquez all look set to miss at least one of the two meetings.


Jasmin Burić 
Hubert Wołąkiewicz, Marcin Kamiński, Manuel Arboleda, Kebba Ceesay
 Łukasz Trałka, Mateusz Możdżeń 
Gergo Lovrencsics, Kasper Hämäläinen, Szymon Pawłowski
Łukasz Teodorczyk

Friday, June 21, 2013

Finnish clubs in Europe - who can they play?

Just 30 days after European football for 2012/13 ended with Bayern Munich lifting the European Cup in London, UEFA bring continental club football back to our focus with the draws for the first and qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League.

The hood from the Thunderbirds gets busy

In 2012, Finnish clubs had mixed fortunes - all the Finnish entries to the Europa League won at least one tie, with KuPS making it to the third qualifying round, losing to Bursaspor. HJK got through their second qualifying round tie, but lost to Celtic, before then losing to Athletic Bilbao after dropping into the Europa League.

So in Monday's draw, who could the Finnish clubs draw?

Champions League

HJK Helsinki are competing in the European Cup for the fourth consecutive season, and again enter at the second qualifying round. In each of the previous three editions, they've got past round two, but been eliminated at round three.

Last year's winners Bayern Munich

HJK are seeded in the second round, and their matches will be on the 16/17th and 23rd/24th July. Losing in this round will mean total elimination from Europe.

Second qualifying round

Seeded: BATE Borisov (Belarus), Celtic (Scotland), Steaua Bucureşti (Romania), Viktoria Plzeň (Czech Rep), Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia), Partizan Belgrade (Serbia), Legia Warszawa (Poland), Sheriff (Moldova), NK Maribor (Slovenia), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), IF Elfsborg (Sweden), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (Israel), Molde FK (Norway), HJK Helsinki (Finland), FK Ekranas (Lithuania), Neftçi PFK (Azerbaijan), Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia).

Unseeded: Željezničar Sarajevo (Bosnia), FH (Iceland), Győr (Hungary), The New Saints (Wales), Ludogorets Razgrad (Bulgaria), Sligo Rovers (Ireland), Shakhter Karagandy (Kazakhstan), Skënderbeu (Albania), Birkirkara (Malta), Vardar Skopje (Macedonia), Cliftonville (Northern Ireland), Daugava Daugavpils (Latvia), Sutjeska (Montenegro), Nõmme Kalju (Estonia), CS Fola Esch (Luxembourg).

The two clubs who win in the first round - EB Streymur (Faroes), Tre Penne (San Marino), FC Lusitans (Andorra) or FC Shirak (Armenia) - will also be unseeded.

The draw starts at 1100 BST on Monday. Next year's final will be played in Lisbon.

Europa League

Slightly different - Inter Turku and TPS are seeded in round one, while Fair Play entrants IFK Mariehamn are unseeded. Suomen Cup winners Honka enter in round two, and they will be unseeded.

Last year's winners Chelsea (they know what they are)

The Finnish clubs can't play each other, while Inter and TPS will be unseeded if they make it through to round two. Last year there was an element of regional draws, but UEFA haven't confirmed if this is the case for 2013. The first round is played on 4/11th July, the second round on 18/25th July.

I'll list the seeded and unseeded clubs for each round. There are a lot of names... The winners in the first round effectively take the seeding of their opponent in the following round.

First qualifying round

Seeded: Rosenborg BK (Norway), MŠK Žilina (Slovakia), Levski Sofia (Bulgaria), CSKA Sofia (Bulgaria), Videoton (Hungary), Ventspils (Latvia), Tromsø (Norway), Aktobe (Kazakhstan), Dinamo Minsk (Belarus), St Patrick's Athletic (Ireland), Qarabağ (Azerbaijan), Vojvodina (Serbia), Malmö FF (Sweden), Sarajevo (Bosnia), Astra Ploieşti (Romania), KR Reykjavík (Iceland), F91 Dudelange (Luxembourg), Inter Turku (Finland), Dacia Chisinau (Moldova), Levadia Tallinn (Estonia), Linfield (Northern Ireland), Honvéd (Hungary), Valletta FC (Malta), Differdange 03 (Luxembourg), Liepājas Metalurgs (Latvia), Gefle IF (Sweden), FC Pyunik (Armenia), HŠK Zrinjski (Bosnia), İnter Bakı PİK (Azerbaijan), Skonto Riga (Latvia), FK Sūduva (Lithuania), FC Vaduz (Liechtenstein), Flora Tallinn (Estonia), Xäzär Länkäran FK (Azerbaijan), HB Tórshavn (Faroes), Rudar Pljevlja (Montenegro), TPS (Finland), Breidablik (Iceland).

Unseeded: NK Domžale (Slovenia), Glentoran (Northern Ireland), Metalurg Skopje (Macedonia), Milsami Orhei (Moldova), NK Celje (Slovenia), Torpedo Kutaisi (Georgia), Teteks (Macedonia), Irtysh Pavlodar (Kazakhstan), Jeunesse Esch (Luxembourg), Crusaders (Northern Ireland), Santa Coloma (Andorra), Chikhura Sachkhere (Georgia), VMFD Žalgiris (Lithuania), IFK Mariehamn (Finland), FC Mika (Armenia), ÍBV Vestmannaeyjar (ISL), Čelik Nikšić (Montenegro), Sliema Wanderers (Malta), Hibernians (Malta), Tiraspol (Moldova), Drogheda United (Ireland), Trans Narva (Estonia), Gandzasar (Armenia), Kruoja (Lithuania), Astana (Kazakhstan), KF Laçi (Albania), KS Teuta (Albania), Víkingur (Faroes), Mladost Podgorica (Montenegro), FK Turnovo (Macedonia), Santa Coloma (Andorra), FK Kukësi (Albania), ÍF Fuglafjørdur (Faroes), Bala Town (Wales), Broughton FC/Airbus UK (Wales), Prestatyn Town (Wales), SP La Fiorita (San Marino), AC Libertas (San Marino).

Second qualifying round 

Seeded: Rubin Kazan (Russia), Standard Liège (Belgium), Hapoel Tel-Aviv (Israel), Sparta Praha (Czech Rep), Lech Poznań (Poland), Trabzonspor (Turkey), Aalborg BK (Denmark), Anorthosis Famagusta (Cyprus), Utrecht (Holland), Maccabi Haifa (Israel), Sturm Graz (Austria), Omonia (Cyprus), Chornomorets Odesa (Ukraine), Debreceni (Hungary), Hajduk Split (Croatia), Crvena Zvezda (Serbia), Slovan Liberec (Czech Rep), FC Thun (Switzerland), Śląsk Wrocław (Poland), Xanthi FC (Greece), Shakhtyor Soligorsk (Belarus), IFK Göteborg (Sweden), HNK Rijeka (Croatia), FC Minsk (Belarus), Petrolul Ploieşti (Romania), Pandurii Târgu Jiu (Romania).

Unseeded: FK Senica (Slovakia), GKS Piast Gliwice (Poland), Häcken (Sweden), Hibernian (Scotland), Lokomotiva Zagreb (Croatia), Strømsgodset IF (Norway), FC Honka (Finland), Olimpija Ljubljana (Slovenia), St Johnstone (Scotland), Beroe Stara Zagora (Bulgaria), Dila Gori (Georgia), NK Široki Brijeg (Bosnia), Jagodina (Serbia), AS Trenčín (Slovakia), IL Hødd (Norway), Derry City (Ireland).

The draw starts at 1200 BST on Monday. Next year's final will be played in Turin.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Finnish hat-trick in Europe

The first qualifying round for the Europa League has been and gone, and half of the teams involved will have to go back to dreaming... The winners have moved onto bigger things, and the next round will bring bigger challenges.

Let's start with the game I went to, Llanelli v KuPS. The Finns won the first leg 2-1, and came to Wales knowing a clean sheet would see them through. The first half was a scrappy affair, KuPS had more openings but barely made the keeper work, while Llanelli had a few long range efforts that Hilander dealt with comfortably. An early second half penalty took Llanelli briefly ahead (on away goals), but substitute Paananen levelled by rolling the ball into an unguarded net. KuPS now go on to face Israeli's Maccabi Netanya, who came fourth in their league last season.

Pre-match rituals at Llanelli v KuPS

Fellow Veikkausliiga strugglers JJK Jyväskylä were in action against Norwegian fair play entrants Stabæk. The first leg in Suomi was 2-0 to the Finns, and this game had plenty of action - the Norwegians drew first blood, but the game was levelled just before half time with an away goal from Jordi van Gelderen. A goal deep into first half injury time by Mads Stokkelien lifted the spirits, but with another goal for each team in the second half, the game finished 3-2 to Stabæk, so 4-3 to JJK, who go on to face Montenegro's Zeta, who eliminated Armenian Pyunik.

Stabæk v JJK on Thursday night

MyPa had the most to lose in this round - after a surprising 0-0 draw at the Welsh second division side Cefn Druids, a repeat would have led to serious questions being asked. Luckily the team who are currently fifth place in the Veikkausliiga hit a five-star performance, and progress to the second qualifier where they will face Rapid Bucharest, where they won't find things so straight-forward against a team who reached the group stages last season.

Olajide Williams puts number three past the Druids

Inter Turku's opponent was confirmed as FC Twente, 9-0 aggregate winners over Andorrans Santa Coloma. Twente recently re-appointed former England umbrella user Steve McClaren as coach, and will be hoping to repeat the form that won them the Dutch title in 2010.

While I won't be attending any of the ties in the next round, I'll be writing about them, and also HJK's Champions League tie against KR. The draw for the subsequent rounds is also to be made next Friday, so will also provide some views on that.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The road to Wembley/Amsterdam

Football is back! So cry the masses who fill Twitter at least... The various Northern and Southern hemisphere leagues which play during the summer will have something to say about that. But just a couple of days after Spain retained their European crown, the focus returns to club football, and the first round qualifiers for the Champions League and Europa League.

2011 Veikkausliiga champions HJK Helsinki fly the Finnish flag into Europe again, in their second qualifying round tie against Icelandic champions KR Reykjavík. HJK made it into the third qualifier last season, being defeated by Dinamo Zagreb, after an earlier rout of Welsh team Bangor City. They then dropped into the Europa League, and snatched a first leg victory over German heavyweights Schalke, before losing the return. HJK will be hoping for at least a win over KR, and the chance to mix it with the likes of Anderlecht, Basel and Celtic.

HJK v Dinamo in 2011

There are also four teams heading into Europa League battle, dreaming of a May date in Amsterdam. Three enter at the first stage - out-of-sorts JJK drawn to Norwegians Stabæk, while MYPA and KuPS both face Welsh teams (MYPA vs Cefn Druids, KuPS vs Llanelli). Inter Turku enter the second qualifier, but face a tough match against the winners between recent Dutch champions Twente and Andorrans Santa Coloma.

MYPA discovered that they would have to travel to Wales without their three African players (Olajide Williams, Hassan Sesayta and David Opokua), as they were unable to obtain visas. Such logistics could prove fatal. KuPS managed to pull themselves off the foot of the domestic table on Monday with a win over Jaro, and will seek to carry on the momentum with a good first leg result against Llanelli on Thursday. For those who aren't away, I've been lucky enough to receive an invite to attend the second leg in Wales on July 12th, and will hopefully come back with good news and tales of a good performance.

All will be realistic and would be overjoyed to get anywhere near the group stage. But every game is crucial, with the complicated mathematics behind UEFA's co-efficients, seedings and allocation of places. A win here could mean the difference between being seeded or not next year.

Will we see a Finnish team lifting the famous European Cup at Wembley next spring? Probably not. Could a Finnish player? Unlikely. But that's why we dream...

From the 1995 archives

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Llanelli v KuPS - Europa League

As some of you may have noticed, there is a very slight bias towards KuPS on this site... The aim is to remain objective, and I hope to bring more detailed pieces in the future. As part of this, I will be attending the upcoming Europa League qualifier second leg between Llanelli AFC and KuPS, and writing a couple of pieces about it afterwards.

If you are looking to come to the match, I do have 2 spaces in the car from London to Llanelli, contact via Twitter or Facebook if interested. Tickets are available as below, and go on sale from Monday 2nd July. See you there!

UEFA Europa League first qualifying round (second leg)

Thursday 12th July 2012
Kick-off 6.30pm

Llanelli AFC v Kuopion Palloseura (KuPS)

Venue: Stebonheath Park, Llanelli

Adults £10, OAPs/students/under 16s £5

For tickets and information, call 01554 758018    

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Finns in Europe - the Europa League draw

Qualifying for Europe from a summer league has pros and cons - you're fresher than some other rivals, especially in the earliest qualifying rounds. But in the event of mass turnover of players, it's a reward for a league finish of over six months ago where several of the stars may have moved on.

 Cutbacks meant that the trophy was used to hold the paperwork

That is the case this year - with the draw for the first and second qualifying rounds taking place on June 25th, with the games starting in July. Three teams from Veikkausliiga will be in the hat for the first round (KuPS and MYPA seeded, JJK unseeded), to be joined by Inter Turku in round two.

As is now customary, even teams in the early stages have some good recent European pedigree, first round participants include Twente, Lech Poznan and Rosenborg. Big teams are also found in round two in the shape of Champions League quarter-finalists APOEL and former European champions Red Star Belgrade.

Will the Finns make inroads? The random draw could be kind, but it's hard to see them getting too far. KuPS are struggling domestically, and only qualified as cup runners-up to HJK. JJK got tonked 1-5 at home to KuPS this week, while MYPA sneaked in via the fair play award.

 KuPS in Europa League action

Whatever happens, the co-efficient will need to improve, and eyes will be on the champions to get through in the Champions League. The complicated UEFA mathematics show Finland not far behind Bosnia-Herzegovina in the rankings, but a huge gap then to the next level. A consistent run to the group stages will be required to get any long-term benefits.

Whatever happens, Escape To Suomi will bring you the highlights of the draw, along with permutations and, if things go smoothly for the Finns, the prospect of playing some of Europe's biggest clubs such as Inter and Liverpool!