Monday, 20 February 2012

Meistriliiga 2012 season preview

With temperatures in Estonia recently having hovered around the -15C mark, it seems absurd to think that the Meistriliiga 2012 season will be getting underway in a couple of weeks. The season kicks off on Saturday 10th March with last season’s runners up JK Kalju hosting FC Levadia Tallinn in the big game of the day. Champions FC Flora Tallinn travel east to Sillamäe Kalev and newly promoted JK Tallinna Kalev welcome FC Viljandi.  These matches are preceded by the Superkarika game between Flora (as champions and Estonian Cup winners) against Narva Trans (as Estonian Cup runners up) on Tuesday 6th March.  The first few weeks of the season are played on artificial, largely snow cleared pitches until the temperature picks up around the end of April. The early season matches tend to be scrappier affairs, which could be due to a combination of the pitches, the conditions and pure rustiness.

Flora have kept the majority of their 2011 championship winning team together with top scorer Henri Anier the major loss as he has signed a three year deal with Viking FK in Norway.  Henri’s younger brother Hannes, also a striker, will be looking to inherit the place left by his brother. Flora have also bolstered their ranks with the quadruple signing of Mait Toom (goalkeeper), Reio Laabus (midfielder), Kaarel Torop and Albert Prosa (strikers) from Tammeka Tartu. Prosa could be a real force this season after 22 goals for a struggling Tammeka last year. A slightly surprising signing was the acquisition of the soon-to-be-35 year old striker Martti Pukk from Kuressaare. Retaining the core of their squad – Karl Palatu, Siim Luts, Gert Kams, Zakaria Beglarishvili, Valeri Minkenen, Markus Jürgenson – Flora will be difficult to displace at the top of the league.

However, there is a feeling among fans that Kalju will have enough quality to take their first Meistriliiga title. They have added Italian winger Damiano Quintieri to their squad – the 21 year old was in the youth ranks at Inter and should provide some quality service for Tarmo Neemelo. They have also confirmed the signing of Estonian international defender Tikhon Šišov after a long period of training with the club while dealing with a troublesome contract dispute with FK Khazar Lankaran of Azerbaijan, for whom he signed in 2010. The former Levadia full back is an excellent addition for Kalju. Goalkeeper Vitali Teleš has returned to Tallinn with Kalju following three seasons in Finland with FF Jaro. Teleš has experience of winning the Meistriliiga title in 2005 with TVMK.  Kalju will play their home games this season at the Kadrioru Stadium, away from their home territory of Nõmme.

Kalju's new Italian wide man, Damiano Quintieri

Narva Trans have had a change of coach as Russian Sergei Prikhodko has taken over from Alexei Yagudin, though they have not been particularly active in the transfer market (yet). Last season’s record Meistriliiga goalscorer (with 46), Aleksandrs Cekulajevs, has moved on to the sunnier climes of FC Valletta in Malta following unsuccessful trials at Duisburg in Germany and Lechia Gdansk in Poland. Veteran striker Maksim Gruznov is still going strong following his 20 goals last season and, at nearly 38, can still make a vital contribution.

Levadia need to improve on last season’s fourth place, their lowest finish since their promotion to the Meistriliiga (as Levadia Maardu) in 1999. They also welcome a new coach in Marko Kristal, Estonia’s second most capped international, from Tammeka. They lacked the goals of Flora, Kalju and Trans and, as a result, dropped too many points in drawn games (ten in all). A number of Levadia’s more experienced players, such as captain Konstantin Nahk, Andrei Kalimullin, Jevgeny Novikov and Aleksandr Volodin, have stepped aside to allow their younger players to step up and develop at a higher level. Vitali Leitan does remain and they will be looking for his goals to keep Levadia in touch at the top, though it may be a season of transition in which they have to accept another fourth place finish. The signing of 26 year old striker Rimo Hunt, who scored 35 goals in the Esiliiga for Tallinna Kalev last year, will give them further attacking options. They have also signed 25 year old goalkeeper Priit Pikker from Kuressaare.

Rimo Hunt: hoping to make the step up at Levadia

Tammeka will miss their young Flora-bound players and have also lost Siim Tenno and Kaarel Kiidron to Viktoria Žižkov in Prague and another season in the lower half of the table seems likely. Former striker Kristjan Tiirik has taken the hotseat left by Marko Kristal. They have added defenders Rauno Tutk from Viljandi and Maido Pakk from Finnish side AC Kajaani to their squad.  Paide will want to build on last season’s respectable sixth place finish. Coach Meelis Rooba has done wonders with the part-timers and may well earn himself a chance at a bigger club if he continues in 2012. After a strong start in 2011, Sillamäe spent nearly the entire season in fifth place and look like they may do so again. They are now led by the experienced former Trans and Levadia coach Valeri Bondarenko.

Viljandi, Kuressaare and Tallinna Kalev could well be battling it out at the bottom, but will hope not to match FC Ajax’s unenviable record of going a whole season without a Meistriliiga win. Rimo Hunt moving to Levadia will not have aided Tallinna Kalev’s chances of staying up and Kuressaare will also miss the outgoing Pukk to Flora.  Daniil Ratnikov returns to the Meistriliiga from Cherno More in Bulgaria to play under his father, Sergei, at Kalev.

Daniil Ratnikov returns to Tallinn

While the season may well play out in a similar manner to 2011, Nõmme will hope to push Flora all the way and may just have enough to secure their first title.

Article also published at Slavic Football Union