Northern Europe’s confirmed champions
The likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Juventus are riding high in their domestic leagues at the moment and could well end up as champions – but teams such as Hafnarfjordur, Molde, Daugavpils and Elfsborg have already cracked open the champagne, as they have sealed the national title in their respective top flights.
Naturally, the reason is that almost all the leagues in the north of Europe play a calendar year season and have completed their 2012 schedules, with honours awarded and trophies held aloft by the victors.
The Icelandic league was one of the earliest to run its course, with Hafnarfjordur wrapping up the title before September was out. Heimir Gudjonsson’s team finished the 22-match programme 13 points ahead of their rivals, and in fact sealed a sixth national crown with three games to spare.
Two new names added to roll of honour
It was a similar climax to the campaign in Estonia, where Nomme Kalju were celebrating three games before the last day in the Meistriliiga. The club sealed a maiden championship triumph by a nine-point margin. Veteran 33-year-old Kristen Vilkmae, capped fully 114 times by Estonia, chose the magic moment to announce his retirement from the game, bowing out on an appropriate high.
A new name was also etched onto the Latvian championship trophy, as Daugava Daugavpils pulled off an unexpected triumph and beat off the challenge of the usual big names such as Skonto Riga and the previous season’s double winners FK Ventspils, who came second and third respectively.
If it was a case of all change in Estonia and Latvia, it was more like ‘as you were’ in the Finnish Veikkausliiga, where HJK Helsinki claimed a fourth league crown on the bounce and the 25th in their illustrious history.
Second-tier side stun rivals
Molde FK, the defending champions in neighbouring Norway also retained their crown. "The lads were very focused," commented coach and local icon Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, recently inducted as the first member of the newly-created Norwegian footballing Hall of Fame. "There was a lot of talk about us not being able to win the title again, but we’ve shown it’s possible."
Solskjaer and company will have no issue with handing on the role of surprise package of the year to a different club, IL Hodd from small south-western town Ulsteinvik. The second-division upstarts prevailed 4-2 on penalties against top-flight Tromso to become the first lower league cup winners in 15 years.
On the Faroe Islands, EB/Streymur left it until the last day of the campaign before a 3-2 victory over NSI Runavik finally confirmed a second league title to go with a previous triumph in 2008. "We might not have the best squad, but player for player, we have the best team on the Faeroes," summarised coach Heoin Askham.
The title race also went to the wire in Lithuania, where double winners Ekranas Panevezys and Zalgiris Vilnius were neck-and-neck approaching the finish line. Going into the last day, the sides were separated by a single point and a single goal, but champions Panevezys held their nerve and made it five title triumphs in a row.
Lennartsson: we deserve Swedish crown
In one sense, any team which completes a full league programme ahead of the rest can claim to be deserving champions, but in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, Elfsborg boss Jorgen Lennartsson was convinced his men were the only truly worthy recipients of this year’s top prize. "We were the leaders after 23 of the 30 rounds of matches, so I believe we deserve the championship," he declared.
Elfsborg were certainly a model of consistency for a lengthy period and could even have wrapped up the honours with matches to spare, but a late attack of nerves allowed chief pursuers Malmo and Hacken to pile on the pressure in the run-in. However, the long-time leaders dug deep and just about made it over the line in first place. Helsingborgs IF, double winners in 2011, had a season to forget and even missed out on Europe with a disappointing sixth-placed finish.
The northern show goes on
Alert readers will have noticed that our odyssey through the north of Europe and Scandinavia has made no mention of one of the region’s leading leagues, the Danish Superligaen. There’s a simple reason: since 1991, leading lights FC Copenhagen and their rivals have contested a conventional summer-to-spring season, with the 2012/13 champions due to be crowned in late May next year. Eighteen games into the current campaign, cup holders Copenhagen already hold a nine-point lead over champions Nordsjaelland and fellow title candidates Aalborg.
Of course, this arrangement means that fans in the most northerly reaches of Europe are never truly deprived of football, because just as the Danes turn onto the home straight in early spring, the region’s other leagues are motoring into action – a highly desirable situation for all concerned.