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The Helsinki clubs look set to battle it out for this year’s Veikkausliiga title

The forthcoming season has been dubbed “the year of the returnee”, in honour of the Finnish players returning to their domestic league this year. Finns with international experience playing in Veikkausliiga this term include Jonatan Johansson, Alexei Eremenko Jr, Mika Nurmela, Juho Makela, Jari Litmanen, Aki Riihilahti, Toni Kuivasto, Janne Saarinen and Juha Pasoja.

The budget cutbacks in other European leagues has helped create this influx and added an air of optimism to a league that has just signed its first significant TV deal.

While current internationals Eremenko Jr and Johansson may be trump cards for Jaro and TPS respectively, it is difficult to look beyond the Helsinki area clubs for the likely title winners. While HJK have strengthened since last year’s title win, Mika Lehkosuo, coach of their Espoo rivals Honka has promised his club’s fans that they will not repeat their traditional nightmare start.

HJK coach Antti Muurinen sees the arrival of Fulham loanee Danny Hoesen, Swedish centre-back Peter Magnusson, veteran midfielder Janne Saarinen and quicksilver winger Rafinha from Tampere United strengthen a squad in which its departures have not been big losses.

After finally getting approval for a new 8,000-capacity stadium in Tapiola, Honka’s recent experience of near misses and passing football puts them among the leading lights of Finnish football, but with a young side they could struggle to replace Joel Perovuo who joined Djurgarden in Sweden.

The next group of clubs is led by the two sides from the former capital of Turku. TPS have cut their budget after years of relatively high spending, but the return of Johansson has lifted the whole club, which starts a new era under Marko Rajamaki after the departure of eccentric TV pundit Pasi Rautiainen. Meanwhile, Inter struggled to retain their form after winning the 2008 title, but under coach Job Dragtsma they have restructured. Mika Makitalo returns after spending last season at Haka and, along with American midfielder Daniel Antunez, his influence will be crucial on a team that has struggled to replace Dominic Chatto and Jos Hooiveld to create a new spine.

IFK Mariehamn are pinning their hopes on Mikko Paatelainen providing the goals to lift them into a European spot, but their role as the premier away match in every team’s calendar – players like the scouts from Sweden, while fans go for the cheap ferry alcohol – makes every home match a battle and they will struggle to hit that target.

JJK from Jyvaskyla survived the play-offs last season and their new coach, Kari Martonen, freshly arrived from Honka, should help them improve. Having signed Juha Pasoja and Jarkko Okkonen to tighten the defence and Mikko Hyyrynen to add some class up front, they should be mid-table.

Haka coach Sami Ristila has a younger team than last year and has attempted to add some experienced foreign players, who have arrived in a steady stream on owner Seppo Koskinen’s instructions. This strategy caused friction last season and helping them settle is crucial to Haka’s chances.

Traditional strugglers KuPS have Dickson Nwakaeme, at least for the start of the season, and the big Nigerian is one of the best players ever to have played in the Veikkausliiga. He should ensure they have a good chance of staying up, even if the 23-year-old leaves mid-season.

Promoted side AC Oulu’s recurring financial difficulties are a source of mirth for many, but on the field the Yobe brothers, Donewell and Dominic, along with Canadian striker Frank Jonke and ancient but effective midfielder Mika Nurmela, should ensure they make a fight of the relegation battle.

Jaro’s signings have surprised everyone. Eremenko Jr is ludicrously talented for this league and his father is widely regarded as the only coach able to tell him what to do. Venance Zeze and Maksim Vasilijev are also strong additions for a club more used to selling its best assets.

Jaro’s local rivals VPS of Vaasa will struggle for goals and finish near the bottom, and MyPa are among the clubs that are unlikely to be exciting, or finish outside mid-table, but that could drop if they suffer bad luck or injuries.

Tampere United had a difficult financial situation at the end of last season and their squad looks quite thin. If injuries hit hard, they will struggle. Lahti have been awful in pre-season, but they do have lower-division goal machine Pekka Sihvola, who could pull them clear of relegation trouble.

Season starts
April 16, 2010

Season ends
October 23, 2010

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