Can anyone stop the hegemony of Levadia Tallinn?
Every year the question becomes more and more acute, with the team from the capital having won five of the last six titles, despite the best efforts of their rivals. Last term, eventual runners-up Sillamae Kalev finished 21 points behind the champions.
As usual during the winter break, Levadia have lost some important players, with 21-year-old midfielder Sander Puri, who joined Larissa in January, becoming the first Estonian in the Greek Super League. At the same time, defender Tihhon Sisov joined Azerbaijan team Khazar Lankaran while forward Indrek Zelinski and goalkeeper Martin Kaalma, both former Estonia internationals, ended their career.
The biggest problem for the title-holders is going to be finding a decent replacement for Kaalma, who is now goalkeeping coach at the club.
If they are unable to do so, however, he has announced he will come out of retirement to help out.
Levadia’s city rivals Flora have made some important changes in their management structure. After more than a decade in England, former Derby County and Arsenal keeper Mart Poom has returned to his old club as director of sport. The club have also replaced coach Tarmo Ruutli with another former player, Martin Reim. The 38-year already has his own football school in Tallinn. Flora president Aivar Pohlak says he believes “Poom and Reim are the perfect men to restore Flora’s power”. The last of Flora’s seven league titles was back in 2003.
Like Levadia, Flora have also lost some key players. Goalkeeper Mihkel Aksalu has followed in Poom’s footsteps by going to England, where he has joined Sheffield United, forward Vjatseslav Zahovaiko moved to Portuguese club Leiria, while defender Tonis Vanna and midfielder Martin Vunk start the new season in the Swedish second tier with Syrianska. Again like Levadia, Flora have strengthened mostly with players from their own youth system.
Reim is not the only new big name to take his place on the coaching bench, with former national team midfielder Marko Kristal being given his first coaching role at Tammeka Tartu.
And at the invitation of local Russian businessmen, Russian coach Vladimir Kazachyonok has taken charge at last year’s surprise runners-up Sillamae Kalev. The 57-year-old former Soviet Union international, who has coached several Russian sides, says he wants to help Sillamae win their first championship and has not ruled out the possibility of returning to Zenit St Petersburg – where he was previously coaching their now defunct feeder team – to bring in some new faces.
Nomme Kalju, who were fancied to make a title push last season but could only finish fifth, have strengthened their team, signing two players from Brazil and Portugal, and one from Mexico and Japan. Both Brazilians have Italian passports, which is important because the league only allows for four players without EU passports to be registered and only three can be used in any one game.
Narva Trans, who finished third last year, will be hoping for more of the same, as will Kuressaare and Tulevik.
Having only stayed up last term after beating Warrior in a promotion/relegation play-off, Paide LM will be looking for an improvement in this campaign. Meanwhile, Lootus are back in the top flight after an absence of five seasons. They only finished as runners-up in the Esiliiga last season, but went up rather than Levadia’s reserve side, who finished top but were ineligible for promotion.