Helsingborg, Örebro get top marks in Allsvenskan first half
With a month before the Allsvenskan returns from its World Cup, the silly season is on in full force in Sweden as teams jockey for players for the run to the Lennart Johansson trophy.
by Chipp Reid
The frantic, frenetic first half of the Allsvenskan came to a close May 22 as the 15 teams packed a combined 210 matches into just 78 days. Helsingborg remained on top of the standings, with 11 wins and just one loss in its first 14 games. Malmo sat in second place, five points behind HIF.
If the top-two teams seemed fairly ordinary, the rest of the standings were anything but normal. Örebro held third place at the break, 10 points behind Helsingborg. ÖSK, long something of doormat, is enjoying its best season in more than two decades. Örebro has two weapons apparently in short supply, not only in Sweden but at the 2010 FIFA World Cup: goalkeeping and goal scoring.
John Alvbåge minds the nets for Örebro and after flirting with success since 2006, the 28-year-old ‘keeper appears ready to make his mark. Örebro also won the sweepstakes for coveted Brazilian striker Paulinho Guara, who returned to Sweden after an injury-plagued season with Busan Park in South Korea.
If Örebro is a surprise third-place side, then Mjällby holding down fourth place is a shock. The league newcomers are very much like Örebro, with former Swedish international Mattias Asper in net and Marcus Ekenberg up front. Ekenberg led the Superettan in scoring last season and has six goals in 14 games this year.
Elfsborg, with its potent lineup, is a distant fifth place, 12 points behind Helsingborg.
The top five teams, however, aren’t the biggest story. The real story is who is in last place, or, near the bottom of the standings. Trelleborg holds the dubious distinction of being dead last in the standings, although Tom Prahl’s side can take some comfort from the fact its three wins has it level on pretty big-name teams.
Defending champions AIK sit in the relegation playoff spot, its 3-3-8 record the same as Trelleborg and second-to-last Åtvidaberg. Only goal difference separates the Gnaget from dead last, much like IFK Göteborg, which also has a 3-3-8 record. No one expected Trelleborg or Åtvidaberg to contend but AIK and Göteborg were preseason favorites. Although players, coaches and the media all have their own ideas about the problems with two of Sweden’s biggest teams, one problem every sides shares is the pace of the first three months.
The Allsvenskan rushed to complete its first half before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. When the clubs put out the schedule last November, all anyone really knew was Sweden wasn’t playing in the tournament. Several managers who had a number of African players simply didn’t know whether they would lose players to the world championships. As it turns out, only one player – Sebastien Eguren of AIK – is on a World Cup roster. Eguren is from Uruguay. Once it became clear the World Cup would have little impact on the Allsvenskan, many teams advocated changing the schedule, but those pleas fell on deaf ears.
“It’s just crazy. Here we are on vacation and the weather is perfect,” said Elfsborg spokesman Göran Löhne. “When the season started the fields were in terrible shape because we had the worst winter in 50 years and yet we had to play. This is just stupid because it was only the bigger teams that didn’t want to change the schedule. Every else did.”
The poor playing conditions at the start of the season led to a spate of injuries, disjointed play and, most of all, small crowds. The average attendance of matches is down almost 2,200 people from last year, a troubling sign for many clubs during an economic downturn.
The second half kicks off July 18, roughly a week after the World Cup final, giving the league four months to play a combined 256 matches. If it sounds like a lot of time, it isn’t. Teams also have the Swedish Cup in which to play and mandated breaks for the national team as Sweden tries to qualify for the 2012 UEFA European Championships. It could all add to a frantic, frenetic – and fun – second half of the season.
AIK Where to start? The biggest problem AIK faces, other than a lack of goals, is in goalkeeping. Young Finnish star Tomi Maanoja has been a flop all season and is currently hurt. When he comes back – and he is set to return at the start of the second half – there is no way new head coach Bjorn Wesström can possibly play him. Croatian U-21 goalkeeper Ivan Turina trained with AIK over the break and looks to be the next contestant to replace Daniel Örlund, who is now a bench player at Rosenborg in Norway. AIK also needs help in scoring goals. The loss of Ivan Obolo continues to hamper the Gnaget and now it looks as though Argentine Jorge Ortiz wants to return home, which would carve a huge hole in the AIK midfield. AIK is too good to end up in the relegation zone, but with its struggles, it could well sit where it is now – in the playoff spot – for the rest of the season. The problems at AIK are enormous. The Gnaget have the second-worst offense in the league – scoring just 11 goals in 14 goals. Only last-place Trelleborg has scored fewer times than AIK. Just to make life worse for AIK, it appears none of the players in the scout pipeline are ready for prime time. The team ran a handful of Brazilians in and out of training during the break, but none were good enough to make the team. The Gnaget essentially need to rebuild the team that won the Allsvenskan last year, if only to show the players that stay that the club actually cares about winning.
Brommapojkarna BP could be the saddest happy team in the Allsvenskan in the second half of the season; sad because 18-year-old star-in-the-making John Guidetti is off to the big stage with Manchester City in England; happy because the Premiership club might – might – let the teen finish the season in Sweden before bringing over to England. BP went into the break in seventh place, but just 12 goals in 14 games. Guidetti had three of them and Bromma probably can’t remain middle of the table if it loses a quarter of its offense output. BP has several other young players – most notable Milko Albornoz – who could also leave when the summer transfer season starts after the World Cup. It all spells trouble for a team that simply lacks the kind of depth necessary to make a run at the top four spots in the table.
Djurgården This was supposed to be the breakout season, the year when a revamped, younger, fitter DIF would return to the stop of standings. Clearly, someone forgot to tell the rest of the league, which as run through, over and around the collection of rookies and veterans that make up the current Djurgården squad. DIF looks like a team with no real direction and plays like a squad with two very different and disjointed halves. The absence of goalkeeper Dembo Tourray for much of the first half didn’t help matters, but the real problem is the squad. DIF’s mix of Swedes, Finns and Africans simple doesn’t work and new head coach Lennart Wass hasn’t figured out how to make it work. DIF went into the break in tenth place, mainly because Johan Oremo remembered how to find the net. Tourray also returned for the last couple of first-half matches, which gave DIF another boost. It won’t be enough, however, for anything other than mediocre (at best) results in the second half.
Elfsborg If any team has what it takes to mount a challenge to Helsingborg in the second half, it’s Elfsborg. Whether the 2005 champions can make up 12 points in 16 games, however, is anyone’s guess. Elfsborg now has the deepest pockets in Swedish football, thanks to the 46 million kronor ($8.5 million) sale of midfielder Emir Bajrami to Dutch side FC Twente. The transfer is the second-largest in Swedish history, after the move of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Malmö to Amsterdam. The bankroll gives Elfsborg the power to compete for a top-notch forward, but it doesn’t really need one. Denni Avdic leads the Allsvenskan in scoring while James Keene and Amadou Jawo and former international Fredrik Berglund can all find the net. Skipper Anders Svensson said he doesn’t think Elfsborg needs to replace Bajrami and spend its windfall, although head coach Magnus Haglund has been looking at shoring his goalkeeping. Elfsborg allowed 16 goals in 14 matches in the first half, although Eflsborg isn’t likely to replace Australian net minder Ante Covic. The biggest help Elfsborg could get would be from Helsingborg, which needs to fall out of form in the second half for the Boras side to have any chance of making up
GAIS It is way too early to call any success at the “other club” in Göteborg a renaissance for the team that once was the standard for Swedish football. Still, it has been so long since GAIS tasted any real success that a few wins and a spot closer to the top of the table than the bottom is something to celebrate. GAIS has one weapon every team wants: Wanderson do Carmo. The Brazilian led the Allsvenskan in scoring last year and after getting off to a slow start, has four goals in the final six matches of the first half. GAIS thinks it could reap millions for the Brazilians and actually put his name on the open market. Unfortunately, so far, only FC Minsk in Belarus has made an offer and GAIS turned it down. With Wanderson, GAIS is a competitive although not necessarily a powerful team. Goalkeeper Dime Jankulovsky remains streaky while the defense, which allowed 16 goals in the first half, is OK but not special. In fact, GAIS is remarkably average, which accounts for its 4-5-5 record.
Gefle When the Allsvenskan starts up again July 18, it will be almost three months to the day since Gefle last won a match, a 1-0 victory over AIK on April 19. Gelfe is 0-3-6 in its last nine matches, with two of the draws coming its final two first-half matches. Although the results won’t come, Gelfe does have Alexander Gerndt, The 24-year-old striker is second in the league in scoring with eight goals and is already attracting interest from overseas. After Gerndt, however, things get a little thin. The Gävle –based side has a so-so offense – 13 goals in 14 goals – and a so-so defense – 16 goals allowed. Veteran goalkeeper Mattias Hugosson is one of the brighter spots for a team mired in mediocrity, along with Gerndt. There is little Gefle can do to improve its roster since it’s one of the smallest clubs in the league but Gefle, like many smaller sides, could be spoiler late in the season if any title contender try to look past it, provided Gerndt remains with the team. If he leaves when the transfer window opens, Gefle could go from spoiler to relegation-bound very quickly.
IFK Göteborg This is the team favored to win the title? There is simply no reason for Göteborg to be one win away from the relegation playoff spot. And yet, there it sits, three points ahead of AIK in 12th place in the league. Göteborg is the only team outside of the top five with a positive goal differential, has allowed less than a goal a game and has some of the best domestic talent in Sweden. The problem could well be all the hype. It would seem the players all bought into the fact they would win the title and simply expected the rest of the league to lay down. Wrong decision. General Manager Håkan Mild decided to shake up the team in June by firing popular co-coach Stefan Rehn, leaving Jonas Olsson to fly solo. Just how that will affect the players remains unclear. Goteborg did suffer from an injury bug, as Hannes Stiller, Ragnar Sigurdsson and above all Tobias Hysen missed most of the first half of the season. IFK especially missed Hysen, last year’s top scorer and a veteran presence despite being only 28. About the only good thing to come from its horrible start – just three wins in 14 matches – is all the talk of transfers away from the club has pretty much ended. IFK has three Swedish U-21 international, a pair of Icelandic international and Stefan Selakovic, a some-time Swedish international. Why the team can’t seem to win is simply a mystery. Göteborg has 16 matches to save its season. A title is out of the question but a strong finish could at least erase the bad memories of April.
Halmstads BK Eighth place and five wins isn’t too bad for a team whose big signing over the winter was former Notre Dame midfielder Michael Thomas. The American was a second-round draft pick of the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer, which isn’t the greatest endorsement of his talent. The Yank accomplished little with HBK and Halmstad released him when the first half of the season ended. Thomas was simply one indicator of Halmstad’s on-again-off-again season. The team’s true talent, 22-year-old Emir Kujovic, who was ready to sign with Glasgow Celtic, barely kept his place in the starting 11 in the last two games of the first half as his form mysteriously evaporated. Halmstad trainer Lasse Jacobsson clearly doesn’t have an answer other than to move the Swedish U-21 international to different positions in the midfield and up front. Halmstad is another example of how parity – and a lack of spending – can combine to make a competitive but keep it from winning.
Helsingborg What happens when a team stays healthy, makes a few wise signings and actually spends a couple of kronor? In the case of Helsingborg, it becomes the league leader. HIF might have the best team among any of the teams in the Allsvenskan. All 11 players work as a seamless unit with the unifying factor being the retirement of iconic Henrik Larsson after last season. When Larsson retired, pundits declared Helsingborg dead, much to the chagrin of the remaining 22 players. HIF added youngster Rene Makondele to its mix last year and the Congo international had an immediate impact and clearly learned a lot from Larsson. This season, however, Makondele apparently became homesick for Stockholm, where he first played when he arrived in Sweden with Djurgården. Makondele told HIF not to bother offering him a new contract as he wants to return to the capitol city. How much of an effect the African’s discontent might have on other players is uncertain. Probably not much. Helsingborg has offered new contracts to several of its key players and also reveling in the renewed form of Markus Lantz and Erik Edman, both of whom have played their way back onto the Swedish national team. Helsingborg has everything it needs to continue winning and run toward its first gold medal in a decade, provided it can keep its team intact and avoid the injuries that have plagued many of its rivals.
BK Häcken After some loud talk at the start of the season, Häcken certainly returned to Earth as the first half came to a close. Häcken was on top of the standings after five games, when the bottom fell out. The twin striking tandem of Paulinho and Jonas Henriksson at first seems providential. However, neither scored in BK’s final five games of the first half and until head coach Peter Gerhardsson figures out how to reignite his offense, Häcken faces a long second half. BK dropped from first to 11th in the league. Gerhardsson also needs to get his team winning again. Häcken had just one victory over the final seven weeks of the first half. Still, not everything is bleak at the “other” team in Göteborg. Häcken remains ahead of its cross-town rivals in the standings and with Henriksson and Paulinho in the stable, Gerhardsson should be able to turn things around.
Kalmar The commodity in shortest supply these days around Kalmar isn’t goals or defense. It’s name tags. The 2007 champions have lost so many players to larger teams – and run so many erstwhile replacements in and out of the lineup – that the few remaining veterans probably confuse all the new players’ names. Kalmar currently has 29 players on its roster – and continues its reliance on Brazilians for offense as it brought in two more youngster from Rio, 22-year-old Douglas and 21-year-old Rafael. Both have seen time with the reserve team during the break. Head coach Nanne Bergstrand wants to trim his roster somewhat and plans to loan out many of his youngest players over the summer. All the changes, however, undoubtedly contributed to Kalmar’s horrible start – KFF didn’t get its first win until May. The biggest factor, however, was simply the loss of seven players from its championship team over the past two years finally caught up with the squad. Few teams can lose that many players and expect to remain in form and Kalmar finally suffered. Kalmar ended the first half in sixth place – thanks to seven draws. Its four wins, however, point to the need to continue fiddling with the roster until Bergstrand finds the right mix. He already has an excellent base in stalwart players such as skipper Henrik Rydström, goalkeeper Peter Wastå and midfielder Stefan Ålander. If he is able to trim down his roster and add quality players to a lineup that also includes Daniel Sobralense and Abiola Dauda, a top-four finish isn’t out of the question.
Malmö FF It took seven years, three coaches and more than 40 players, but things are finally bright at the Swedbank Arena. Malmo FF is winning again. Although a second-place position at the end of the first half isn’t necessarily the stuff of ticker-tape parades, it is a vast improvement over the past few years, when MFF was the biggest underachiever in Swedish sports. Malmo is just five points Helsingborg and head coach Roland Nilsson has his mix of Brazilians, Norwegians, Swedes and Nigerians playing as a unit rather than 11 individual players. Malmo has a budding star in “Ricardinho” Ferreira da Silva Kubitski and in Swedish Under-21 star Guillermo Molins Malmo has another gem. Nigerian international Edward Ofere began full training in June as should be ready for the start of the second half. Ofere, who was all but ready to play in the 2010 World Cup until a knee injury, should have a major impact on the Malmo defense, which allowed 16 goals in the first half. Malmo already owns the best offense in the league and there is no reason to think it would slow down in the autumn. With Ofere back in the line up, Malmo could well upend Helsingborg over the final three months of the season.
Mjällby Where did these guys come from? Newcomers to the Allsvenskan often give more established teams fits because they’re new – unknown quantities. Mjallby, however, is showing it can actually play. Markus Ekenberg, who led the Superettan in scoring last season, is showing no signs of having problems adjusting the premiership. His partner in striking, Moustapha el Kabir, is also enjoying his time in Allsvenskan. Combined, the two have 11 goals in 14 games. Mjallby sits in fourth place, a distant 11 points behind Helsingborg and just one in front of Elfsborg, which has a deeper team and more talent. That probably doesn’t bother Majallby, however, which owes its success to not showing fear in the face of bigger, more experienced sides. It may not finish in the top four, but Mjallby also doesn’t have the relegation worries of Atvidaberg, the team with which it joined the Allsvenskan
Trelleborg The view form the bottom can’t be pretty for head coach Tom Prahl. Trelleborg, with the smallest stadium and smallest roster, probably doesn’t deserve to be in last place. It has more than enough talent to be where it usually is, in the middle of the pack, but for some reason, Trelleborg can’t seem to buy a win or, more important, a goal. Even Prahl is at a loss for words when it comes to the first half, saying he has no answers to what ails his team. Defensively, Trelleborg was suspect in the first 14 games, allowing 23 goals – the second most of any team. Offensively, the team was horrible, finding the net just 10 teams. Trelleborg lacks the budget to buy players who can improve the squad, so that means Prahl must find a way to get his entirely Swedish side to improve its quality of play. Trelleborg faces a long second-half battle but with Prahl at the helm, it should avoid relegation.
Åtvidaberg After a second-place finish in the Superettan last year, there was a scent of success around Atvidaberg going into the 2010 Allsvenskan. The smell these days isn’t that of success. Atvidaberg had the worst defense in the league in the first half, allowing 24 goals. The only reason it isn’t in dead last is Trelleborg can’t score. Atvidaberg hit rock bottom in the final match of the first half when it lost 4-1 to offensively anemic AIK. Atvid general manager Mats Karlsson, however, isn’t pushing the panic button. Karlsson said he wouldn’t break the bank and endanger the club’s finances by chasing players across the globe. Atvid is looking, however, bringing in players from Africa, South America and Finland to try out with the club. It needs to do something, especially to shore up its defense, if it plans to remain in the top division. More than likely, money will beat winning, and Atvid will be back in the Superettan next year.
Örebro Is this year Sixten Bostrom and Co. make their breakthrough? Is this the year Orebro joins Kalmar and Elfsborg as first-winners of the Allsvenskan? It could be, although a number of factors must go right for OSK. First, it must keep its current squad together while finding a replacement for central midfielder Kim Olsen, who signed with FC Copenhagen in June. Second, it must hang onto goalkeeper John Alvbage, who appears ready to step into the spotlight as the elite net minder of the league and it must keep Paulinho Guara, its Brazilian striker. Orebro won the sweepstakes for Emil Berger, the 18-year-old prodigy from Degerfors, and also is taking a hard look at Astrit Ajdarevic, a 20-year-old midfielder who spent last year on the Liverpool FC reserve side. OSK is 10 points behind first-place Helsingborg and opens the second half with a home-and-home series against fifth-place Elfsborg. The series could well make or break Orebro. Bostrom, if he can replace Olsen, has everything he needs to mount a challenge for the title. The question Orebro must answer is whether it can maintain it first-half pace. The answer should come in the first two matches in July.