What to expect from the 2016 Finnish League Cup

by Luyang Syvänen

When we talk about domestic cup competitions in football, we usually perceive them to be played in conjunction with the domestic league. However, in Finland, there is an exemption.

Unlike most formats, The Finnish League Cup is played prior to the start of the top tier Finnish Football League (Veikkausliiga) that commences annually around mid-April and finishes at the end of October.

 

Whilst The Finnish League Cup is only for teams that compete in The Veikkausliiga, coupled with the fact that winter conditions in Finland also limits the Finnish top tier to a shorter calendar year compared to majority of other European leagues, the purpose of the league cup, which is played in indoor halls with synthetic-grass surface, is to therefore act as a pre-season preparatory tournament, where managers can experiment with tactics, players can improve their match fitness, and newly promoted teams can get a sense of what the top tier tempo is like.

Judging by the mixture of teams competing in The Veikkausliiga this upcoming season, the league cup certainly promises a scintillating showdown. Furthermore, the brand new cup format introduced this November, in which two regional groups containing six teams each will take over the previous format of four groups with three teams each, also guarantees a much more simplified context to the tournament setup, as group winners will proceed directly to the finals.

Essentially, this aligns to the goal of The Football Association of Finland to increasingly market The Finnish League Cup to raise greater interest in The Veikkausliiga.

More importantly, with the rise of last season’s Veikkausliiga champions SJK Seinäjoki and runner-up RoPS Rovaniemi, the competitiveness of The Veikkausliiga has taken a giant leap forward, as for the past six years, no team has ever come close to posing any serious title challenge to HJK Helsinki, the nation’s most successful club, who only managed to finish in third place last season. For this reason, the level of anticipation has never been higher in Finland for the upcoming year.

Although The Finnish League Cup is merely a warm-up to the actual season, it would be a mistake to stick with the ‘expected’ at this stage. In fact, the ‘unexpected’ might just add an extra dimension to what is set to become the most fascinating campaign in Finnish football for a long time.

Group A – the battle of the ‘northern region’ teams

SJK (Seinäjoki; Southern Ostrobothnia region)

RoPS (Rovaniemi; Lapland region)

Ilves (Tampere; Pirkanmaa region)

KuPS (Kuopio; Northern Savonia region)

VPS (Vaasa; Ostrobothnia region)

PS Kemi (Kemi; Lapland region)

What makes Group A such an enthralling lineup is that it comprises of two champions from last season (SJK of Veikkausliiga and PS Kemi of First Division) as well as the fact that this is the first time in 10 years that two teams from Lapland region are playing at the same time at the highest level.

Speaking of PS Kemi, a club formed in 1999, their rise to the top tier is nothing short of extraordinary, especially when they were still in Second Division two years ago. Moreover, the small town of Kemi only has a population of about 21,800 citizens, making it a real minnow in Finnish football, let alone in The Veikkausliiga.

That said, their determination and eagerness to impress could make them a surprise package, but equally it could cost them valuable points. However, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this experience.

As with SJK and RoPS, arguably the two best teams of last season, with the latter also the runner-up of last year’s league cup, the stakes are even higher now to maintain their consistency and prove that they belong amongst the nation’s elite.

In terms of player material, SJK slightly edges above RoPS in both depth and width. With the likes of former Finnish international Mehmet Hetemaj (brother of Serie A Chievo’s Perparim Hetemaj), former Bristol Rovers midfielder Wayne Brown, young prospects Cedric Gogoua and Emil Lidman, and newly recruited Finnish international Jarkko Hurme, SJK boasts a wealth of players to choose from, and definitely is a contender for the cup title, even though their top goalscorer, former HJK striker Akseli Pelvas, has recently just moved to Swedish top flight side Falkenbergs FF.

RoPS, though, is not far behind; extending contracts with last season’s top goalscorer Aleksandr Kokko, club captain Antti Okkonen, and Gambia’s national team captain Abdou Jammeh only solidified the team, while announcing the signing of three young talents in winger Aapo Heikkilä from AC Oulu (First Division), attacking midfielder Robert Taylor from JJK Jyväskylä (First Division), and defender Juuso Hämäläinen from FC Inter further adds steel to their ranks.

The only regret for RoPS is having to part ways with Finland’s under-21 captain Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who is eyeing opportunities to play abroad next season. Nevertheless, this will not hinder RoPS from going strength to strength, with highly-rated full-back Janne Saksela likely to continue being their asset in assists, but lacking the penetrative edge displayed by Yaghoubi is an issue that, if not addressed, could see RoPS not able to maximise their potential in front of goal.

As for Ilves, KuPS and VPS, all of whom have long traditions in Finnish football, their primary objective is no more than to ensure that they are fully prepared for the challenges ahead in the upcoming season, particularly after all three teams were struggling with relegation last season.

Ilves were promoted to the top flight last season only because MyPa Kouvola and FC Honka Espoo were denied with license for not meeting the Finnish FA’s and UEFA’s club licensing requirements.

With their lack of financial resources and squad depth, the future of Ilves looks extremely skeptical, but on the bright side, the appointment of retired Finnish international Jarkko Wiss as their new manager, who has previously worked as head coach for Finland’s under-19 team, does provide fresh hopes.

In addition, sealing deals with Finland’s under-17 midfielder Mikael Soisalo and 21-year-old AC Oulu’s captain Tuure Siila is also a positive start, but much more is needed to survive.

The other two lower mid-table teams of last season, KuPS and VPS, will likely to struggle again this year. KuPS have lost two of their star players in striker Irakli Sirbiladze and goalkeeper Tomi Maanoja, with no added signings to date to strengthen the squad. Extending the deal for 19-year-old forward talent Saku Savolainen is great, but nowhere near enough.

Unlike KuPS, VPS have managed to acquire Finnish international defender Veli Lampi from HJK, with talented winger Pyry Soini and former HJK defender Timi Lahti also staying put, while Veikkausliiga’s last season runner-up goalscorer Juho Mäkelä likely to renew his contract, too.

Even so, their chances of winning the group, let alone pose a threat in The Veikkausliiga, is rather slim, considering that they lack power in midfield in the form of now departed players Sebastian Strandvall and Cheyne Fowler, all of whom were integral part of VPS when they clinched third and fourth place in The Veikkausliiga in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

 

Group B – the battle of the ‘southern region’ teams

HJK (Helsinki; Uusimaa region)

FC Inter (Turku; Southwest Finland region)

FC Lahti (Lahti; Päijänne Tavastia region)

IFK Mariehamn (Åland Islands; autonomous, demilitarilised, Swedish-speaking region of Finland)

HIFK (Helsinki; Uusimaa region)

PK-35 Vantaa (Vantaa; Uusimaa, Greater Helsinki region)

Now this group will provide as much thrills as the previous one, but having three teams from the capital region of Helsinki will definitely shift extra spotlights onto them.

Newly promoted PK-35 Vantaa, having won their promotion-relegation playoff match against FC KTP Kotka to seal a sensational place in the top flight for the first time, is a club only established in 2009. Managed by retired Finnish international Shefki Kuqi, who has a huge drive to succeed, the team should not be underestimated, as they are capable of producing composed yet exciting brand of football.

However, inexperience and lack of squad capacity compared to other teams in the group will certainly limit their chances of competing against the more experienced sides.

As the winners of last season’s league cup, HJK will be eager to continue their winning streak and reinforce their status as the nation’s best following a disappointing Veikkausliiga campaign last season.

Regardless, they are, both financially and in terms of player quality, miles ahead of other teams in the league, with SJK and RoPS the only teams that can match them currently.

Having already extended deals with former AC Milan defender Taye Taiwo, former RB Leipzig goalkeeper Thomas Dähne, Japanese attacking wizard Atomu Tanaka and two academic prospects, 18-year-old centre-back Leo Väisänen and 17-year-old attacking midfielder Lassi Lappalainen, while also capturing FC Inter’s talented youngster Vincent Onovo, HJK are once again building a solid yet diverse squad.

The only issue that might negatively influence HJK’s performances is the departure of some of their key players from last season, with teenage full-back sensation Roni Peiponen moving to Norwegian champions Molde FK, and midfield maestro’s Demba Savage and Rasmus Schüller flying to Swedish top flight side BK Häcken, while forwards Formose Mendy and Macoumba Kandji also deciding not to renew their contracts.

Thus, to win the cup, and to compete for the upcoming Veikkausliiga title, HJK must find solutions to fulfill the roles left by the departed players, or they will face yet another disappointing campaign.

The other Helsinki outfit, HIFK, who were promoted to the top tier in 2014, is slowly but steadily rising to becoming a mainstay in The Veikkausliiga. Being one of the oldest clubs in Finland, and the fierce rivals of HJK, their style of football is a modern mix of pace, creativity and possession.

Having one of Veikkausliiga’s most colourful and noisiest supporters is also a major advantage, as HIFK had, together with HJK, the best record at home last season, though they both share the same stadium.

Aside from their modern approach to football, HIFK also boasts a wealth of young talents, with four players currently ever-present in Finland’s under-21 team: goalkeeper Carljohan Eriksson, full-back Nnaemeka Anyamele, midfielder Fredrik Lassas, and forward Youness Rahimi.

The energy of the youth are complemented by experience, with the likes of powerhouse winger Otto-Pekka Jurvainen and goal scoring machine Pekka Sihvola offering plenty of firepower. Hence, if HIFK are able to maintain their direct, fast-paced possessional play that attracted so many admirers last season, then they might well be on course to produce solid performances yet again.

Moving away from the capital, one of the most consistent teams, FC Inter, is no stranger to glory. If we talk about top flight experience, FC Inter has definitely got it.

Over the last eight seasons, they have achieved one gold and one silver medal in The Finnish League Cup as well as one gold and two silver medals in both The Veikkausliiga and The Finnish Respect Cup, with the latter competition equivalent to The FA Cup played in England.

In terms of squad depth, FC Inter are not on the same wavelength as the likes of HJK, SJK or RoPS, but qualitywise, they are extremely solid, despite losing their talented 20-year-old striker Vahid Hambo to Brighton & Hove Albion mid-way through last season.

Yet, with former Veikkausliiga Player of the Year Mika Ojala dominating the midfield, young startlets Philip Njoku, Benjamin Källman and Solomon Duah providing width in attack, and Finnish international Sebastian Mannström, top goalscorer Guy Gnabouyou and club captain Henri Lehtonen adding leadership and consistency, FC Inter are likely to challenge for the top spot in the group.

If they can also manage to persuade their 16-year-old wonderkid Kaan Kairinen, who flew to Turin last week to trial for Juventus, to stay for another season, it would be a massive boost for both the club and Finnish football.

 

Regarding the last two teams, FC Lahti and IFK Mariehamn, both of whom are experienced in the Finnish top flight, as the former has finished in the top 5 for the past four Veikkausliiga seasons, while the latter has competed in The Veikkausliiga since 2005. In fact, both of them are very much capable of unbalancing some of the top guns as well as push for qualification in the group.

FC Lahti is not only known as the ‘home’ of former Barcelona and Ajax legend Jari Litmanen, but also for their tight and organised defensive line. What they lack is the decisiveness in front of goal, as they have been consistently wasteful in that department last season.

New attacking recruit Kalle Multanen from FC Haka Valkeakoski, who has won two consecutive top goalscorer titles in the First Division since 2014, is expected to deliver much needed goals together with the club’s cult figure Rafael, while midfield enforcer Duarte Tammilehto acquired from IFK Mariehamn will come to inject toughness and stamina.

Losing defensive rocks in Henri Toivomäki, who moved to Sarpsborg 08 in Norway, and former Finnish national team captain Petri Pasanen, who retired at the end of last season, will certainly take away large chunks of leadership from the back, but by bringing Finland’s under-18 centre-back Paavo Ahola and promoting the talented 16-year-old academy defender, Paavo Voutilainen, to complement their defensive cornerstone Pyry Kärkkäinen, they are continuing to build their strategy on solid defending. Now they have to shape their attack to tick, too.

Although IFK Mariehamn have lost the fan-favourite Duarte Tammilehto to FC Lahti, their current crop of players have enough quality to rise to any occasion.

Besides, with away teams usually having to travel by ferry to reach Mariehamn, the capital of the swedish-speaking area of Åland Islands, which takes approximately 10-12 hours depending on the ferry schedule, it is one of the most difficult places to play in the Finnish top tier.

With former Turkey Süper Lig Bursaspor’s attacking midfielder Petteri Forsell, key attacking masterminds Alexei Kangaskolkka and Diego Assis, energetic wing-back Albin Granlund, and newly joined set-piece specialist Gabriel Petrovic from Swedish side Brommapojkarna in their ranks, IFK Mariehamn will guarantee a dynamic and aggressive style of play in order to upset the status quo.

Be prepared to expect the unexpected.

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