By Margus Luik
The 2005 Estonian Meistriliiga season kicks off earlier than ever this year, on Wednesday 2 March, with a game between JK Trans Narva and FC Levadia Tallinn. Then, the following Sunday, the first full round of matches will be played.
Bigger and better?
The reason for the prompt start is the Estonian Football Association's (EJL) decision to expand the top flight to ten teams and schedule an unprecedented 36 rounds of fixtures (more even than in the days of a 14-club first division). The EJL says the greater number of games will help the players develop but it remains to be seen if the inclusion of debutants JK Tammeka Tartu and two semi-professional sides, FC Kuressaare and JK Dünamo Tallinn, will raise standards.
Title-holders Levadia will begin as favourites. Tarmo Rüütli's team have sold Eduard Ratnikov to Bulgarian side PFC Beroe Stara Zagora and parted company with retired Argo Arbeiter, Mati Pari and Maksim Rotškov. To offset that, however, the signings of international forward Indrek Zelinski and Lithuanian striker Martynas Karalius should keep the club strong.
Sights on Europe"Our aims are to stay on top of the Estonian Meistriliiga and to progress at least one round in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers this summer,"
said Rüütli. "We had a positive European experience last time around."
Ins and outs
Last season's runners-up, FC TVMK Tallinn, may again be Levadia's main rivals. Losing international midfielder Liivo Leetma to Finnish side FC KooTeePee and the release of veterans Toomas Kallaste and Andrei Krolov have been compensated by the arrival of experienced Lithuanians Tomas Rimas and Gintas Širmelis while international defender Erko Saviauk has signed from FC Flora.
Seven-time champions Flora cannot be counted among the favourites for the first time with a host of key players having left – internationals Saviauk (to TVMK), Enar Jääger (FC Torpedo Moskva), Joel Lindpere (PFC CSKA Sofia), Ragnar Klavan (Vålerenga IF), Meelis Rooba (USA), Marko Kristal (retired) and possibly Kristen Viikmäe (Fredrikstad FK). They are replaced by youngsters from the club's youth system.
Trans and Merkuur challenge
Trans have kept a low profile and have trained hard under Valeri Bondarenko, while JK Merkuur Tartu have signed several players and appointed Russian Grigory Yevtushenko as head coach.
Both clubs might be considered contenders, although the recent resignation of president Tõnu Rüütel hints at some problems at Merkuur. So perhaps the surprise package will be JK Tulevik Viljandi, where new coach Marko Lelov is building an interesting-looking team with the same squad as last season.