Coach Olli Huttunen has reason to feel a little smug with his FC Haka side defying gloomy predictions to top the Finnish table, saying: "Many have been surprised by the way we have started, but I have not."
An eighth-placed finish last year was the worst in a decade for the Valkeakoski-based side, and having fared poorly in the pre-season Finnish League Cup, they were billed for another term of mid-table mediocrity in most quarters. However, eight games into the new campaign, they top the table on 17 points, with the coach asserting: "I said before the season started that Haka would be stronger than people expected and this has been the case."
With Seppo Koskinen now the major shareholder, plenty has happened to the club since the end of last season. Their 39-year-old Russian midfielder Valeri Popovich – the soul of Haka for over a decade – left for HJK Helsinki, defenders Juuso Kangaskorpi and Jarkko Okkonen retired while Toni Lehtinen, Cheyne Fowler and Mikko Manninen all found new clubs. To fill their places, Sami Ristilä returned home from Drogheda United FC, with other signings included Myllykosken Pallo-47 goalkeeper Janne Korhonen, FC International Turku centre-back Diego Corpache, midfielder Mika Mäkitalo – also from Inter – and forward Antti Hynynen.
The new-look side's pre-season form was, for Huttunen, proof that his charges placed more importance on preparing for the new league programme than winning the League Cup. "Our goal was to get each player into his best form," he explained. "In some games we deliberately played people who were not at their best. The idea was that every player would be ready when the league season started and this worked out well." One squad member in particular has stood out, with defender Pietari Holopainen scoring five goals in eight games. "He has been great both in defence and attack," said Huttunen.
However, not everything in the coach's garden is rosy, and he believes that he has still yet to see the best of his side. "We have played some good halves, but so far we have not played a full 90 minutes at our best," he said. A 2-0 win at second-placed Inter on the weekend underlined Haka's title ambitions, but Huttunen expects choppy waters ahead. "I expect it will be tight. We will be battling at the top with Inter and also HJK, Honka, Lahti and Tampere. There might even be a dark horse and it could be one of the IFK Mariehamn, MYPA, TPS and Jaro."
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