Club hibernation ends in Norway, Sweden
Europe's biggest leagues are heading onto the home straight for the 2011/12 campaign, but there is still little action to report from Scandinavia. The only nation following the west European pattern of a summer-to-spring season is Denmark, where champions FC Copenhagen are five points clear of cup holders Nordsjaelland at the top of the Superligaen, with 11 games remaining in the 33-match season.
By contrast, the 2012 campaign gets underway in Norway this coming weekend, with Swedish fans treated to the resumption of league hostilities a week later. In Finland, the winter break lasts through to mid-April. FIFA.com looks ahead to the new league seasons in the Norwegian Tippeligaen and Swedish Allsvenskan.
The defending champions
For the first time in the history of Norwegian club football, Molde start the campaign as champions. In 2011, the men in blue and white sprang a considerable surprise by finishing ahead of resurgent Tromso and usual suspects Rosenborg. The record books suggest that a second coup is a distinct possibility, as seven of the nine clubs who have won the Norwegian championship at least twice also managed to defend the title.
“Plenty of teams have won the league once and then sunk without trace,” warned Molde boss and Norwegian footballing legend Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer. “We're not planning to follow that route. We want to keep on developing and win more trophies," he added.
The situation is similar in neighbouring Sweden, where defending champions Helsingborgs are just one of several title contenders. The 2011 crown was Helsingborgs’ first since 1999, and also maintained a remarkable series in Sweden, where seven different teams have won the league in the last seven seasons.
This unprecedented sequence began in 2005, when the title was won by Djurgardens. Elfsborg, Goteborg, Kalmar, Solna and Malmo then followed suit, raising the question of whether Helsingborgs can interrupt the series and retain their crown.
Any discussion of Norwegian club football invariably involves Rosenborg. The Trondheim-based outfit are the nation's most successful club with 22 league titles to their name, most recently in 2010. The Troillongan, which translates as ‘Troll Kids’, will surely push Solskjaer and company all the way this year. Other names likely to feature among the chasing pack are former champions such as Brann Bergen and Fredrikstad.
Next door in Sweden, the running is likely to be made by the nation's top two, Malmo and Goteborg, 16-time and 15-time champions respectively. Of course, if the streak mentioned above happens to continue, this pair and double winners Helsingborgs will not enter the frame.
The dark horses
Tromso rate as the Tippeligaen’s surprise team of the last two seasons, as the two-time cup winners finished third in 2010 and claimed a maiden runners-up spot last year.
Given the incredibly evenly-matched nature of the Allsvenskan, any number of teams start the season with hopes of glory. Runners-up Solna or Elfsborg may well be among a large group of clubs fighting for the title over the months to come.
The biggest transfers
In general, the Norwegian close season was quiet in terms of transfer activity. All the top-flight teams taken together laid out a total of less than €10 million on new players. Champions Molde invested around €1 million on 23-year-old centre back Even Hovland, with Rosenborg reportedly spending the same on each of John Chibuike and Borek Dockal.
One of the talking points in Sweden is whether champions Helsingborgs can continue to compensate for the loss of top individuals Marcus Nilsson, Alexander Gerndt and Rasmus Jonsson, who all left the club halfway through last season. The champions have brought in a clutch of players including Iceland international Alfred Finnbogason for the forward line.
One of the more intriguing moves saw USA international Ricardo Clark, who was out on loan with Eintracht Frankfurt in the German Bundesliga, switch to Stabaek.
Players to watch
Fans and experts alike will be keeping a close eye on new arrival Hovland, but also monitoring the progress of shooting star Yann-Erik de Lanlay of Viking and Rodolph Austin, named Brann player of the year by his team-mates.
Strikers win matches but defenders win championships, so they say, and that certainly held true last season in Sweden, where Helsingborgs captain Par Hansson and his back four formed the best defence in the league. The national team keeper will again need to produce his sparkling best if he and his men are to have an equally successful 2012.
Malmo, the nation's most successful club, boast plenty of quality in their ranks, as the team coached by Rikard Norling includes a strong backbone in Ricardinho, Ivo Pekalski, and the leading scorer in 2011, Mathias Ranegie.