With Autumn drawing in, Veikkausliiga is sorting itself into distinct sections going into the closing stages of the season. The top two are matching each other blow for blow in the fight for the championship, the next group of five are dropping points and beating each other as nobody really cements their hold on third spot and a place in the Europa League, the four mid-table teams with nothing much to play for, and the bottom three desperately trying to avoid relegation.
The most intriguing match-up will take place in Espoo, where FC Honka will take on fellow European hopefuls Haka at Tapiolan Urheilupuisto. Haka’s recent coaching change was expected to bring an upturn in fortunes, but unfortunately new man Sami Ristilä chalked up a 5-1 loss away at KuPS in his first game in charge after taking over from Olavi Huttunen at Tehtaan Kenttä.
“Not even in my wildest dreams did I imagine a start like this, but that’s how it went,” Ristilä commented after the loss in Kuopio. “I take responsibility for making the wrong selection decisions, but we’re all in the same boat.”
It’s unlikely central defender Petri Viljanen will be in Ristilä’s boat for the voyage to Honka, as the former PoPa man describes his chances of recovering from a foot injury as “50-50”. A win would take Haka within two points of third place Honka, who will look to get back on track after a 3-2 home defeat against Inter last time out.
The top two both face Ostrobothnian opposition, with HJK taking on Vaasa side VPS at Finnair Stadium, and TPS travelling to Jakobstad to face FF Jaro. VPS troubled HJK when the teams met in Vaasa on 1 July, with HJK requiring two goals from substitute Akseli Pelvas to secure a 4-3 victory, but since then VPS have suffered from erratic form. HJK, on the other hand, have never really hit the heights but are unbeaten since 16 June. The game is televised, and will be broadcast on YLE2 at 17:00 Finnish time.
The Jakobstad game will see an in-form TPS side try to extend their 15-game unbeaten run. Their last defeat came on 14 May in the Turku derby against Inter, and with the retention of Wayne Brown until the end of the season and Pasi Rautiainen’s agreement of a new contract to remain as coach for next season as well, a lot of momentum is with Tepsi.
Moving into the group of European contenders, IFK will face FC Lahti at the Wiklof Holding Arena. Lahti have five players out, IFK only one (Johann Carlsson’s suspension from the Tampere United defeat coming into force today), and the Mariehamners will expect to take three points if they can find some form in front of goal – a record of just 22 goals this season shows why they are in the chasing pack and not among the title contenders.
Tampere United, who renewed their challenge for third place with that fortunate 1-0 victory over IFK last time out, make the long trip north to Rovaniemi to face RoPS. The game will be played at the renovated Keskuskenttä, as the Laplanders leave their temporary home at Susivouti, and with Antti Ojanperä out suspended for TamU their defence looks threadbare following the deadline day departures of Jussi Kujala and Mathias Lindström. RoPS will be without Korean keeper Kwon and midfielder Ville Syväjärvi, as well as 20 year-old striker Chanda Mwaba.
“We have to hold Chanda back, so he doesn’t return too soon,” RoPS coach Mika Lumijärvi told Veikkausliiga.com. “He will play in the Mypa match, and then we will see a very energetic Mwaba who can even win games on his own.”
RoPS are bottom of the table, but level on points with Jyväskylä team JJK, who travel to Turku to face Inter. The Jyväskyläns have stuttered in recent weeks, and they may yet rue the six drawn games they might have converted into wins. Their Macedonian striker Giorgi Hristov is a doubt for the Turku trip, and Koskela and Lähitie are both out. Grot and Gomez-Marttila will not be in Inter’s squad, as they look for a win so they can keep hoping for a European place.
Lastly, the relegation fight’s form team KuPS will travel to mid table Mypa. The Kuopio team have alread knocked Mypa out of the cup at Saviniemi, and if they can repeat the trick they’ll go a long way towards cementing their top flight status for another year. KuPS are missing Finland Under-21 striker Pele Koljonen, but coach Esa Pekonen is looking to keep his players grounded after their impressive rout of Haka.
“Everything went well for us in the Haka match,” Pekonen admitted. “Each match is a new game, and the risk with a big victory can be that people imagine things happen without the hard work. The coach should ensure above all that the team’s work ethic remains as good as in the past.”