North European hopefuls set for action
When one door closes, another opens somewhere else, or so they say. Of course, this piece of proverbial wisdom has its parallels in the world of football. Take the fact that, while the top European leagues in the west and south of the continent are slowly but surely approaching the home straight in the 2012/13 campaign, the teams in the north are for the most part still limbering up for the start of hostilities in the new season.
For the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, all streets ahead of their domestic rivals, the time has almost come to plan victory parades and put the champagne on ice. In Scandinavia, it is the prospect of those goodies at the end of the season which is causing the footballing temperature to rise.
United the role model for Molde
In Estonia, the 2013 campaign kicked off a couple of weeks ago. Champions Nomme Kalju, Sillamae Kalev, cup winners Levadia Tallinn and Flora Tallinn all boast maximum points from their first two Meistriliiga fixtures, although that is bound to change at the weekend when the men from Nomme and Sillamae go head-to-head. Kalju registered their maiden top-flight triumph last term, finishing the campaign an impressive nine points clear of their rivals. However, the other contenders will be determined as never before to prevent the novice champions doubling their tally.
In Norway, all eyes are on Molde FK after their back-to-back championships in the last two years. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side opened the new season on Friday evening against Viking Stavanger, but fell to a 2-1 defeat as they opened their title defence.
"We've got that competitive edge, the coaching staff, because they were brought up at Manchester United, so that's just in our DNA,” the coach and playing legend explained to UEFA.com. "The coaches have the same philosophy, so the coaching we do every day is about expressing yourself, using your talent, playing football quickly on the floor, attacking football, entertaining football. So I have to say that United is the role model for us, we are just on a smaller scale."
Big ask for Elfsborg
However, Molde were dealt a close-season blow with the departure of Vegard Forren to English Premier League side Southampton. The big defender had expertly marshalled the backline in close to 150 matches since 2007 and was a towering figure in Molde’s double title success. Furthermore, it will be hard even to come close to the exceptional unbroken streak achieved by Trondheim-based Rosenborg, comfortably the nation’s most successful club, who won the title in 1992 and only relinquished their grip in 2004. The Troillongan (The Troll Kids) have never quite recaptured former glories since then, and will be desperate to bounce back after two years without silverware.
Finnish fans still have around a month to wait before the Veikkausliiga reawakens from its winter slumbers. Twenty-five time champions HJK Helsinki start as favourites after winning the league from 2009 to 2012, but cup holders Honka Espoo will hope to prevent a fifth HJK triumph on the bounce, while an unfancied side such as Inter Turku could yet upset the form book.
Fans in neighbouring Sweden only have to be patient until the week after next before the domestic league action recommences - and unlike Finland or Norway, there is no single dominant force in the Swedish game right now. The last six seasons have produced six different champions in IFK Goteborg, Kalmar FF, AIK Solna, the nation’s most successful club Malmo FF, Helsingborg IF and reigning champions IF Elfsborg.
A decade has passed since Djurgardens became the last champions to retain the title. As for 2013, the clubs have invested relatively paltry sums on transfers up to now, despite the Allsvenskan’s loss of stars such as Mathias Ranegie (Malmo), Majeed Waris (Hacken) and Oscar Hiljemark (Elfsborg) to the lure of an overseas adventure.
But one thing appears certain: just as fans of the west and southern European game prepare for the run-in to the end of the season, supporters and enthusiasts in the north can look forward to another campaign packed with incident and action.