FC Flora return to Europe after one-year break.
The exclusion in season 2014-15 marked the first time in the club’s history since the first participation (1994-95).
In the year marking the club’s 25th anniversary, a young squad and an attempt of a new game philosophy, they are the main features of the white-greens.
Will they manage to survive to the first round of games? The odds are all against them since in 20 years they only managed once (2006-07).
‘We are young, we run green,’ sang Supergrass old tune from the 90’s.
It was the golden age of Britpop but also of FC Flora stockpiling the first titles after restored independence of Estonia.
Flora was for many years the feeder of the national team and of the entire Estonian football system. The club’s management, led by the polyhedric Aivar Pohlak, aims at restoring that tradition. A reason why the club has been looking inwards in the past seasons to try and promote its talents from the academy. The declared objective for season 2015 is to grow more of them, however fans would be happy to rise the 10th Estonian title before Levadia would do, marking an historical overtaking.
If Karol Mets was sold for good money (according to Estonian transfer market values) during winter transfer season (250,000€, never confirmed by the club), the next on the list might be Rauno Alliku and Maksim Gussev who have recently earned national team call-ups and caps. They are both wingers (right and left) and represent Flora’s best output in terms of offensive game as Karol Mets was a central defender (now at Norwegian club Viking). Around them, there are some interesting young players who might have a bright future however, they will be put on trial by the European challenge (first appearance for most of them).
Starting from the goal, Mait Toom has proven to be a more-than-valid replacement of Stanislav Prins (suspended for matchfixing at the start of the year). Most of the goals suffered by Flora in Premium Liiga (11 in 15 games) are not his fault. The defensive line has had several changes. With the above-mentioned Mets fleeing to Norway, also veteran Taavi Rähn left to set sails for Levadia FC. A move the Flora fans did not swallow due to the rivalry with the other Tallinn’s club (they have a more recent one also with Nõmme Kalju). However, the former international justified his move with the fact that Flora was not willing to give him the same (financial) conditions. Said that, coach Norbert Hurt has happily welcomed another international: Enar Jääger. A right back, Jääger was mostly employed as central defender. He has a great experience (over 100 games in the national team) however seems to lack the sufficient height to play in that role. When he can, he compensates with a discrete sprint. An injury has sidelined him for few weeks and his participation to the first round is in doubt. In place of Enar, Hurt has brought in 22-year-old Nikita Baranov. Despite his young age, Nikita is already a veteran of FC Flora and has already played as central defender despite being a full-back with good offensive skills. His partner in central defence might be another full-back, Markus Jürgenson. Coach Hurt might opt not to risk the very young central defenders (Joosep Juha or Janar Õunap) exposing them to a stage bigger than them and to great expectations by the fans. With Kevin Aloe (right back) and Gert Kams (left back and captain) completing the line, he should provide a good blanket to Mait Toom.
However, his troubles might come from the midfield line.
Employed to develop a new concept of football (ball possession, commonly ‘tiki-taka’), Norbert Hurt seems to have lost the plot this season.
‘The philosopher’, as he has been maliciously nicknamed by his own fans in the aftermath of several lost derbies, seems to have comfortably communicated his concepts to his team only when playing minnows. Howeve,r the XI is unable to handle the big fixtures and prevail (they account for only 1 point in 4 games, 2 each against Levadia and Nõmme Kalju). The last round of Premium Liiga before the Midsummer break saw the Goddess Flora losing 1-0 at home against Narva Trans, a club with some title-fighting past which has been floating in the relegation zone in the previous couple of seasons. ‘Where is the new philosophy taking?’ – seems to be the main point arosen by the critics. It is hard to understand since Hurt is very calm in his post-match interviews and nothing seems to worry him, even when it should. On the back of that, Hurt preferably fields his side with a 4-1-4-1 having Karl-Erik Luigend as the defensive midfielder.
Luigend was a promise of Estonian football. In 2012, as a left winger (his original role) he scored Estonia U-19 only goal in the only final tournament the country ever took part to (they were appointed by UEFA as hosts…). Since then, a descending curve until Hurt re-invented him as defensive midfielder.
Pirlo? Xavi? Toure’? Thiago Motta? Any kind of comparison has been spent, however it seems that Luigend is doing his best to disappoint everyone. He can master the game when he has space, but he suffers as any other member of the team when put under pressure. Result: he does not make the difference when it is needed. When he loses the plot, the foul and consequent yellow card, they are waiting for him behind the corner. Entrusted with most of the set-pieces, he has not been prolific neither as scorer nor as assistman. It is probably a bit too late to go for a change, however he might represent Flora’s weak point in what is a neuralgic part of the pitch. If we want to assume a possible replacement, either Andre Frolov (once team captain now a sub) or the young German Ślein, part of the U-21 national team (he's only 19). With Alliku and Gussev storming on the flanks, the two trequartistas behind the lone striker shall be Flora’s most interesting player so far, Rauno Sappinen, and Georgian lightweight fantasista, Zakaria Beglarishvili. The latter started off well but did not give consistency to his performances. Sappinen was one of the few arising from the average in the unsuccessful games.
We shall not forget another player endowed with flair, Russian (Dinamo Moscow youth product) Irakli Logua. He was a start but now might be an alternative to Gussev on the left. Very fast and keen on the one-on-one's, he is also endowed with a powerful shot. A quality Gussev owns too.
The striker has been Flora’s main problem this season.
After bringing in Kakkonen wonderboy, Sakari Tukiainen (40 goals in one season, record for the Finnish third tier) they lost Albert Prosa for a long term injury. The Tartu-born nr.99 might be available again at the resume (Flora are visiting Sillamäe on the 26th of June), however he totally lacks game practice. Sakari played his last full game on the 13th of May being a sub hereinafter. More of a target man, it seems that he hasn’t integrated with Flora’s game (a network of passes before, finally, getting into the box) and Hurt did not seem keen to bend the formation and build-up to exploit his features. Meanwhile, the Finnish lad scored a brace that gave Flora a comeback win against Sillamäe in the Estonian cup quarter finals. Maybe he might be a striker who could work well in 180’ minutes tie, it is up to Hurt to understand that. Before Flora brought Joonas Tamm on the first day of transfer window (he left Viljandi where he scored 9 goals, half of the team's tally), the alternatives were really few having the same Alliku moved up front.
Tamm will provide additional weight.
Hurt might not change the game philosophy, however he needs to present a team which would be able to cut a fine figure.
STREAK IN EUROPE
Albeit successful at home (23 titles, 9 times national champions) FC Flora are cursed in Europe. Since 1994-95, they managed to advance to the next round only once. It was 2006-07 and Flora’s ‘deep run’ in the cup saw them getting rid of Lyn Oslo on away goals only to lose 0-4 on aggregate to Brondby. Since then, either they started from the first qualifier or the second, they never managed through. In last appearance, they surrendered on away goals to FK Kukesi (ALB) who were at their European debut and reached surprisingly the play-off only to lose against Trabzonspor. Justified.
Out of 42 European games, Flora have won just 3! Since they are not many, it is worth to mention:
UEFA Cup 1995-96 1-0 vs. Lillestroem (NOR)
Champions League 1998-99 3-1 vs. Steaua Bucuresti (ROM), their only famous scalp
UEFA Cup 2005-06 2-1 vs. Esbjerg (DEN)
It’s 10 years (with a break) in the European cups with no wins: 18 games, 9 draws, 9 losses.
Adding the other three draws, 3 wins, 12 draws and 27 losses!
Apart from Steaua Bucuresti, other famous opponents were: Partizan Beograd (SRB, 1999-00), Club Brugge (BEL, 2000-01), Dinamo Zagreb (CRO, 2001-02) and FC Basel (SWI, 2012-13)
- The club’s president, Aivar Pohlak, is also the Estonian FA chairman. A double role that has always risen controversies in other clubs. A former school teacher and writer of kids novels, Pohlak can be duly considered as the founder of modern Estonian football. In addition to his institutional activities, he runs also a players agency (Sport&Net Grupp) that controls the playing rights of Flora footballers. FIFA-licensed agent Tarmo Lehiste officially represents the agency. With the license being released by the local FA’s as a rule, the circle is complete.
- Flora mark their 25th anniversary since foundation (1990). The club’s logo was slightly modified to welcome a number 25 painted in orange. The color is a homage to the ‘Dutch period’ of Arno Pijpers, the most successful coach in Estonia. Assumingly, he set the club’s game identity and he was the national team coach for a lengthy period, creating a direct line between Flora squad and the national team. The ‘monopoly’ was broken as soon as Levadia rose to the scene (1999) and started to compete with the rivals in pumping talent into the football scene.
- Albeit painted in Flora colours in the seating, the A.LeCoq Arena (which during UEFA fixtures is simply named Lilleküla Stadium, from the piece of land where it was erected in 2001) is fully owned by the Estonian FA. Initially built by the club with a bank loan, it was later on sold to the FA and it has been the national team stadium since 2001. It can hold up to 10,000 people with additional seatings at each ends. Full-capacity is reached only on national team fixtures against powerhouses (last example, the game against England in 2014). It is named after one of the two most popular beer brands of the countries which is sponsor of the same Estonian FA.
- The first European goal was scored by Georgian midfielder Otar Korgalidze (1-0 win against Lillestroem in 1995-96 UEFA Cup). The first Estonian national to score a goal for Flora was Meelis Rooba (opener in 2-2 draw against FC Haka in 1996-97). Rooba is present-day coach of Paide Linnameeskond, one of the relegation zone clubs of Premium Liiga.
- Flora’s 3-1 win against Steaua in 1998-99 Champions League preliminary was one goal away from balancing the 4-1 in Bucharest. Maksim Smirnov, Indrek Zelinski and Andres Oper scored the goals. The latters are the topscorers among the internationals: 27 and 38. They formed a close-knit goal couple first at Flora and then in the national team before their road parted abroad. Zelinski was close to a move to Blackburn, unsettled by a work permit issue. Andres Oper retired just in May 2014 after suffering several injuries which blighted the final part of his career.
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