Levadia Tallinn closed the gap between themselves and the top of the table with a hard-fought 1-0 win over leaders Nõmme Kalju at a gloriously sunny Kadriorg Stadium.
Two heavyweights of Estonian football, accounting for the last two league titles, went into the match looking to prove their title credentials and dent their rival’s own hopes with a positive performance, but the match was a cagey affair, with neither side managing to wrestle any sort of control.
The winning goal came courtesy of a second-half Vladislav Ivanov penalty following a handball by Mikk Reintam, as both sides had a lacklustre day in front of goal.
Kalju pushed for an equaliser as the match bore on, but chances were few and far between for both sides, and Levadia held on for the points.
Neither side sprung any major surprises in their starting line-ups; Levadia began in their familiar 4-4-2 formation with Ivanov partnering Ingemar Teever up front, a forced partnership following the news that Artur Rattel has been ruled out for up to 5 months with a knee injury.
Ilja Antonov partnered Dragomir Vukobratovic in midfield, with Andreas Raudsepp slotting into the centre of defence alongside Artjom Artjunin.
Kalju also began in familiar fashion, with Tarmo Neemelo playing as a lone striker, with Hidetoshi Wakui playing behind him in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Damiano Quintieri again began on the bench, with Janar Toomet and Allan Kimbaloula providing the support from the flanks. Boss Igor Prins opted for Reginald in the centre of midfield, a slightly more defensive option than that of Fabio Prates.
As the referee’s whistle got the match underway, buoyed by their ever-vocal fans, Kalju tried to take the early initiative; Janar Toomet proved a lively threat on the right-wing, putting in a few early crosses as Kalju looked to get the ball wide.
Levadia slowly began to see more of the ball, but they were unable to find an early way past the Kalju back line. A heart-stopping moment for Kalju almost gave Levadia a way through, as Alo Barengrub was robbed of the ball by Ivanov in a dangerous position, but Vitali Teles was on hand to rush out and clear the ball to safety.
Ken Kallaste was looking strong in the tackle, and Wakui was seeing a fair amount of the ball, but he was finding support a little limited going forward. Neemelo did his best to offer himself as an option, but the lack of a second striker meant they were somewhat lightweight up front.
Vukobratovic was given a warning by the referee in the 19th minute for going through the back of Wakui, before Allan had perhaps the best chance of the match up until that point. His cut inside from the left gave him enough space to unleash a fierce right-footed shot, but it lacked direction and Roman Smishko was equal to it in the Levadia goal.
At the other end, Levadia continued to be thwarted, with their main threat coming from the right foot of Omar Elhussieny, but his in-swinging crosses from the left failed to find their target, much to the chagrin of his manager Marko Kristal.
The lack of chances coming from either side was a result of their respective patient, passing approaches. Levadia seemed keener to try the direct route, but their balls over the top too often found a Kalju man.
As the match struggled to ignite, Levadia then had the best chance of the first half. Elhussieny finally got his delivery right, and his in-swinging cross from the left was flicked goalwards by Teever. A fine save by Teles saw the ball deflected up on to the crossbar and out to safety, much to the relief of Reintam, who had failed to deal with Teever’s run.
Minutes later, Martin Vunk saw his free kick sail harmlessly over the bar, before Wakui was fed the ball on the edge of the box by Reginald, but his turn and shot failed to trouble Smishko.
Kalju’s lack of attacking support was beginning to show more, as Toomet was given very little to choose from when in prime crossing positions. Levadia looked static, and they were unable to cut Kalju open on a regular enough basis.
Kalju’s best chance of the half came as they finished the first period on top. A Toomet corner from the right was sent deep to Neemelo, and his header back across goal seemed to terrify every one of the 21 other players on the pitch, with no-one making the move to try and get their foot on it. Vunk eventually stepped up, got his feet organised and smashed a shot just over the bar from the edge of the 18-yard box.
A goalless stalemate was a fair reflection of how the game had gone, and both managers had some thinking to do.
However, whatever thoughts had gone through the minds of Igor Prins and Marko Kristal during the interval were sure to been disposed of just two minutes into the second half.
A long ball forward into the Kalju box was handled by Mikk Reintam, stopping the ball reaching its intended target of Teever.
Very few people in the stadium seemed to have spotted the infringement, as the referee’s gesture towards the penalty spot was met with an eerily confused silence. Replays later showed that the decision had been absolutely correct, and Levadia had the chance to open the game up.
Ivanov stepped up and coolly dispatched the penalty past Teles to give the ‘home’ side the lead. A dead-ball situation looked to have been the most likely way either side would open the scoring, and it proved to be so.
The Levadia fans were suddenly alive and in full voice, with both managers prowling the touchline like wild cats. Despite his side’s newly-taken lead, Marko Kristal cut a frustrated figure as his player’s overall use of the ball continued to underwhelm him.
Maksim Podholjuzin was booked a minute later for a foul on Neemelo, but that proved to be the only real action in the ten minutes that followed the opener. The goal didn’t seem to change the dynamic of the game as both side’s relative attacking struggles continued.
Kristal’s frustration was pushed further by the referee’s decision to award a free kick to Kalju after Wakui seemed to have fouled Subbotin, leaving the Levadia defender in a heap on the floor.
Kalju began to hassle more and Martin Vunk was booked in the 65th minute for a foul on Vukobratovic, before a collision involving Smishko and Neemelo left both players stricken on the turf and in need of repair work from the physios.
Kalju made their first substitution on 69 minutes, with talismanic striker Quintieri coming on for Toomet, who had been one of his side’s better players.
Half chances came for both sides as the second half pressed on, but Kalju’s lack of support in the centre of their attack, and Levadia’s lack of flair and, indeed, necessity to push forward gave the game an air of inevitability.
Wakui continued to be industrious for Kalju, and Neemelo was doing his best to get hold of the ball, but it was Levadia who had the game’s next chance nine minutes from time.
Elhussieny’s deflected cross from the right was smashed at goal by Subbotin, but again Teles was equal to it.
A moment of tension then broke out at the other end, as Barengrub and Smishko came together as the pair battled to meet a cross, with handbags and finger-slapping ensuing. After bringing the drama to an end, the referee produced yellow cards for Smishko and Quintieri, who were deemed to have been the main protagonists.
Goal-scorer Ivanov was replaced by Henry Rohtla for Levadia with four minutes to go, before yet another Kalju cross, this time from Ken Kallaste, could only find the hands of Smishko.
As Kalju pressed and committed more bodies forward, Levadia had half a chance to put the game to bed as Antonov could only shoot straight at Teles after being played in by Rohtla on the edge of the box.
Karl Mool was introduced for the injured Reintam with just minutes to go, but Levadia managed to press Kalju and prevented them from getting the ball into dangerous positions in the box as the game came to a close.
The match had certainly not been one for the purists, and Igor Prins’ angry departure from the dugout, failing to engage in a public handshake with any of the opposition management, showed his displeasure at the result.
Marko Kristal will also be far from happy with his side’s performance, but Ivanov’s clinical dispatch of the penalty meant that their under-performance had gone unpunished.
The result has certainly tightened things back up at the top of the table, and there will be a high level of focus on how both sides follow up this performance.