We widely talked about the 2014 Estonian Champions here.
We can only add that, if the defending Champions suffered the departure of Rimo Hunt at the start of the season (remember the scoring problems in the first nine matchdays except for the training game against Kalev?) they managed to find an excellent goalscorer in Igor Subbotin, they enjoyed the valid contribution by Vladislav Ivanov and got the derby expertise of Ingemar Teever under their belt. Over 100 goals scored means the problem was well solved (even though the huge gap between top and bottom helped a lot in making these numbers quite big for everyone). However, they still need to work on tactical flexibility. Levadia won a different type of title: instead of dominating from the start till the end, they chased the opposition down without mercy. Dima Kruglov and Alexandr Dmtrijev once again added value, especially the former. Their away streak was the cutting edge for the title.
The reporters' choice
Deni Delev: In my opinion, all the credit goes to coach Marko Kristal. Even though he remained „stubborn“ with his 4-4-2 it was indeed the formation that brought him all the good results. The main strength was the depth in the squad, not allowing the injuries and the suspensions to leave deep mark on the results of the team. Wisely used Subbotin up front when Ivanov left, created formidable central midfield and made national team player out of Pikk. With one or two additions, this team should be able to dominate Estonian football for quite some time.
Chris Johns: Levadia's performance in the big matches were, for me, one of two main reasons they won the title. A couple of dodgy results against Infonet and Sillamae threatened to derail them, but their responses to these defeats were the second reason. Professionalism and resilience were qualities missing in the other top teams and nobody can argue that they just had the edge in the end.
With less confusion at club level, the Eastern Estonia powerhouse could have had its say in the title until the last matchday. However, returning to Europe for the second season running (third time the club qualifies) it's an incredible result. Those who feared Sillamäe might have suffered from Martin Vunk and Kassim Aidara departure have been 'disappointed' (us included). Even Slava Zahovaiko injury did not scrape Sillamäe's determination. Evgeni Kabaev stepped in and won the topscorer title with over 30 goals, whereas the rest of the midfielded contibuted to the scoreboard in turns. Daniil Ratnikov rose as the inspirer of the build-up (will the Estonian national team doors open for him in future?) and the new coach (Sergey Frantsev) expertize helped Sillamäe to sail away from the difficult moment and end the season in style. Now, if they won't change much next season and bring in further additions, Sillamäe can certainly have a say for the 2015 title and enjoy another European exploit. Sky is the limit.
The reporter's choice:
Deni Delev: Before the beginning of the season everyone knew that Sillamäe will be indeed tough opponent, but no one would have expected them to dominate the last few rounds and put themselves in position to fight for the second place in the last matchday. The periods of confusion in the middle of the season could have been avoided and if Frantsev was installed earlier the table might have looked a bit different. However, nice refreshment and definitely team to follow next season. Attractive football, loyal fans and financial stability is everything a club could wish for.
Chris Johns: It took Sillamae a fair bit of time to show their hand during the season, and a disappointing end to their European campaign led several people, me included, to assume the wheels might come off there. Infonet's mid-season surge towards the top of the table left Sillamae scampering clumsily behind, and it appeared as though they wouldn't even get to within one place of the European spots this time around. However, few people could have predicted their meteoric rise in the second half of the season and they came just short of challenging Levadia in the end. Evgeny Kabaev will of course get most of the headlines, but a lively attacking threesome behind him weighed in with a significant contribution. A four-match winless streak (matchdays 8-11) and a five-game period featuring just one win and three defeats to the top three (matchdays 16-20) earlier in the season were really where Sillamae's season was restrained. It's fanciful thinking, but if Sillamae hadn't had the European games to put their focus to, it could have been they who had taken the spoils.
They were on top of the table for half a season, however they did not manage to wrap it up in the last sprint. Flora's regrets will be many, however that they have one mere win in the derby clashes under their belt (against Kalju) is significant. They have too little claim to be better than Levadia. Hurt's side ran almost seamlessly from matchday 6 till matchday 23, 18 matchdays without losing (13 wins and 5 draws), one short of Levadia's best streak of the season (from matchday 2 to 20, 14 wins and 5 draws). Up to matchday 23, Flora had lost only once. Hurt's side missed the killer instinct in the final part and showed general psychological stress in some apparently easy games (see the win in Tartu accompanied by the red cards for Mosnikov and Luigend). Leading the table for so long can be indeed stressful if you are not used to handling it. Additionally, the fair gap accumulated gave the illusion that the title was close when there were a lot of games to be played, as well as the derbies. Hurt's relaxed coaching ways might be put in doubt, however his results have been overall satisfying, bringing Flora back to Europe, the minimum requested. Karol Mets has also flourished thanks to the boost of the national team call-ups, and Rauno Alliku has become an essential player for Flora once he became injury-free. Zakaria Beglarishvili did not meet the expectations due to inconsistency, and Irakly Logua found his way into being a decisive player again too late in the season. Good contributions from returning veterans Sergei Mośnikov and Taavi Rähn, although the latter might be the one set to leave for Pärnu.
The reporters' choice:
Deni Delev: Unlike Levadia, the „short“ bench was Flora’s main problem this season. When everyone thought that they will march towards the title, fatigue and complacency took over and they lost the title. The idea of nurturing home players is great, but ageing internationals taking the places of young prospects didn’t pay off so Hurt and his staff will have to think of something else (turn towards the transfer market maybe?) if they are about to bring the title back to their cupboard next season.
Chris Johns: It looked as though Flora were on course to walk to the title unchallenged, despite not setting the world alight. While others floundered, they went quietly about their business and saw their controlled passing game get them through, but come the end of season derbies they were found wanting. Perhaps complacency took over them in the end, but it seemed as though when they were really challenged and put under pressure they didn't have the experience to deal with it. A couple of derby draws instead of defeats could have seen them write a different ending, but it shows that they lack that extra bit of steel that Levadia have shown in the closing weeks. Their lack of a Plan B was highlighted in those derby games, similar to the fate that befell Kalju, and it will be interesting to see whether Hurt can fix this, particularly for the European games where they are likely to need a different approach against more established teams.
It was one of the hardest and most deluding season of the past 4 years. The last time Kalju placed 4th at the end of season was in 2010. However, back then they were not yet a title-bidding side. The European campaign brought a bit of joy as they managed to win at home against Lech Poznan (1-0) before capitulating in Poland (0-2). The start of the season was shocking as they lost the 1-0 win against Infonet on their debut due to a bureaucratic blunder. After that, they had a great run that helped them become table-leaders at the end of the first round (two points clear of Levadia, Flora and Sillamäe). The 12-game streak (12 wins and 2 draws) remains the Premium Liiga third best, however Kalju gave in little by little, game by game, point by point. The most inspiring players were Jorge Rodrigues, back into the XI at the expenses of Mikk Reintam, and Hidetoshi Wakui. The Japanese wizard was set to leave Kalju in winter and then returned, with over 20 goals and a lot of inspiring perfomances under his belt. What would have happened without him? Injuries played a big role in the crucial part of the season (Allan Kimbaloula above all) but at the same time, Igor Prins showed worrying signs of being worn out at his role. Fans are not happy with him and the way he used the resources. Coach change for 2015? The Estonian Ferguson is already under jeopardy.
The reporter's choice
Deni Delev: Kalju have always been the team that hired interesting players from different countries around the world. This year they can say that their scouts completely failed with their job. None of the new guys proved to be match deciders and the reliability on Wakui was too obvious. Neemelo scored his fair share of goals, but against stronger oppositions he often proved clueless in attack. Fresh ideas and fresh legs should be brought into the club next season, especially on the right flank and up front, if they aim for silverware.
Chris Johns: If you look at Kalju's injury list throughout the season it would be easy to say absences were the main reason for their failure, but in reality it wasn't quite like that. A very one-dimensional approach to every game saw them rarely able to claw back losing positions, and they looked lightweight up front at times, particularly once the creativity of Allan disappeared. Derby defeats showed a lacked of character, and a fair amount of chopping and changing to the line-up, granted some of it was forced upon them, probably didn't help. Their squad depth was probably the best of any of the top sides, but they couldn't use that to their benefit, with several players played out of position to accommodate Prins' favoured 4-4-1-1 formation time and again.
Our predictions of a safe fith place as a minimum achievement, and above Paide, were on target. During some parts of the season, Infonet gave the impression that they could aim at the podium. However, their lack of consistency and the inexperience at this level took their toll. Can Alexandr Puśtov be satisfied? In the end, yes. It was one additional year of experience and the improvement compared to the first year is tremendous. FC Infonet have definitely risen from the status of relegation-fight side and stepped in to the upper part of the table. They could take advantage next season from Kalju's declining (?) status, but only if they manage to keep most of the squad and use their interesting additions more often (Eduard Golovljov and Vladislav Ogorodnik above all). Manucho didn't hide his ambitions of playing abroad and Kassim Aidara might be seeking to redeem himself after a deluding season in the capital. As it's still a young side with a few interesting veteran additions (Tanel Melts had a key-role in midfield) there's still plenty of improvement and excitement ahead for the young club. Additionally, their home ground in Lasnamäe might finally be a reality next season and the club should finally take a more convinced approach to marketing itself in the territory (the populous district of Lasnamäe) to increase attendance and loyalty.
The reporter's choice
Deni Delev: Infonet are on the crossroads at the end of this season. The team has the potential but they need a little push if they want to break into the top 4 in the upcoming season. Manucho already proved that he is at least one class above his teammates and if they don’t build around him, he will surely leave. One player in each line is needed to lift the level of the team and with that maybe they will manage to attract more fans and create even bigger surprises.
Chris Johns: It's difficult to judge Infonet's season, as they certainly hit their pre-season targets. A mid-season run that took them to the bring of the European spots gave many people the impression that Infonet had under-estimated their abilities, but the inconsistency that followed this run brought them back down to earth a little. An excellent 3-2 win at Levadia and a spirited 2-2 draw with Flora showed that they can mix it up with the big boys, but some distinctly average performances against some of the lower sides showed where they need to improve. If they can retain key players and possibly strengthen in key areas (down the wings) there's no reason they can't challenge for Europe next year, but they must build on the experience they've gained this year and not rest on their laurels. Moving back home should bring them some more stability too.
In second part we will analyze Paide Linnameeskond, Narva Trans, Tammeka Tartu, Lokomotiv Jõhvi and Kalev Tallinn.