Champions of the north crowned
The most high-profile European leagues might only be around a third of the way into their 2009/10 campaigns, but in countries with a spring to autumn season, now is the time of year when champions are crowned. In the north of the continent, the champagne corks have already popped for a handful of triumphant clubs.
Take, for example, the Veikkausliiga in Finland, where HJK Helsinki have sealed the title for an impressive 22nd time. The club are unique in Europe as holders of the record for championship wins in both the men's and the women's game. They are also cup holders at present, but had suffered a six-year drought in terms of league honours until this season. They will now attempt to battle through the qualifying rounds for the UEFA Champions League next summer. The men from the capital did take part in Europe's elite competition back in 1998/99, the only time Finland has been represented in the group stage.
It was not all plain sailing on the domestic front this term. HJK opened the campaign with a thumping 5-1 victory, but a run of just one win in five saw them slide to fifth by the end of May. After steadily regaining lost ground and recovering top spot in mid-season, they endured a run of five draws and toppled from the summit again. However, HJK recovered to end the season three points clear of Honka Espoo and Turku.
By comparison, new Estonian champions Levadia Talinn had a much easier time of it. There are still four games to go in the Meistriliiga, but the holders are already assured of a successful title defence, as they lie an unassailable 15 points ahead of second-placed JK Kalev Sillamae. It is Levadia's fourth title on the spin, and the seventh in the club's 11-year history.
Indeed, the men from the capital hold a truly incredible record, as they have now gone a staggering 59 league games without defeat. "All my lads have done their jobs well," enthused coach Igor Prins. "but there are still areas where we have to improve. We haven't yet realised our full potential."
In Norway, Rosenborg are back in business following a relatively barren spell. After winning 13 league titles in a row between 1992 and 2004, a extensive transitional period produced just one triumph (2006) until now. The nation's most successful club returned to Tippeligaen glory this season, emulating the men from Talinn by sealing the crown with games to spare - and in the most satisfying way possible, as Troillongan visited closest rivals Molde FK and won 2-0.
"The team has been through a very difficult rebuilding process over the last few years, but they're back now. The current team will be extremely successful for a long time," predicted former Trondheim supremo Nils Arne Eggen after Rosenborg wrapped up the title.
On the Faroe Islands, where the top flight is the Formuladeildin, the identity of the champions has also been established. HB Torshavn claimed a 20th national championship, edging out last year's double winners EB/Streymur, who had to make do with the runners-up spot. "It's fantastic and beyond my wildest dreams," HB boss Samal Erik Hentze beamed. "I never expected this to happen so early in my career. Like I say, it's just fantastic."
Staying on the trail of the northern champions, our route takes a turn to the west away from Scandinavia proper and across the ocean to Iceland. The league here is the Deildin, in which FH Hafnarfjordur successfully retained the title. "It's been a tremendous summer," declared club captain Davíd Thor Vidarsson. "We've played some terrific football and deserved to win the league." The men in black and white were the first team in all of Europe to secure a berth in qualifying for the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League.
While the honours have already been handed out in a number of the summer-season countries, the title race is still alive and kicking in Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania. With two games to go in the Swedish Allsvenskan, AIK Solna and IFK Goteborg are running neck-and-neck at the top, with just a single point separating the sides.
The Latvian Virsliga is also a two-horse race between Metalurgs Liepaja and defending champions FK Ventspils. Metalurgs are favourites as they hold a five-point advantage, but the pair come face-to-face at the weekend and the chief pursuers could throw the race back open.
The most intriguing showdown of the lot is in Lithuania, where the climax to the A-Lyga season is one of those knife-edge situations so beloved of neutrals and detested by coaches. With one game to go, Ekranas Panevezys hold a three-point lead over Vetra Vilnius, and also boast a goal difference three superior to their rivals. However, there is still all to play for, as the duo cross swords in the last game this Saturday.
Our survey of the northern European league scene would not be complete without a mention of the Danish top flight. However, the Superligaen season follows the winter format, so the successors to double winners FC Copenhagen will not be crowned until mid-May 2010.