There is something of a dichotomy in Swedish football circles as the 2012 Allsvenskan kicks off March 31 with three matches, including the marquee game of the opening round, Djurgården v. Elfsborg in Stockholm on Opening Day.
The problem comes when the question of who will win the league comes up. The Swedish media, which loves to anoint at least one club as the preseason favorite, this year has placed that mantle squarely on IFK Göteborg. The Angels enter the 2012 season with a new head coach, a bevy of stars and great expectations, all of which combined to give the team a new nickname – Real Göteborg – which is either flattery, comparing the team to Real Madrid, one of the best teams in Europe, or an insult, comparing the team to Real Madrid, which never seems to live up to all its hype.
That’s the media.
The Allsvenskan managers have their own thoughts, and most think Göteborg will be an expensive flop this year. Five of the 16 Allsvenskan bosses picked Malmö to win the title while four tipped Elfsborg to hoist the Lennart Johansson trophy. Only three managers thought “Real Göteborg” would win it all.
“We have some laughs at those stories but overall we don’t care what others say,” said IFK goalkeeper John Alvbåge. “A lot of people have Göteborg on their lips. It’s proof stuff is happening here.”
Despite the difference in opinion, Göteborg is the team to beat in the Allsvenskan, even more so that defending champions Helsingborg. Göteborg built arguably one of the strongest teams in Scandinavia, making several shrewd moves for young stars such as Nordic Gerzic, Daniel Sobralense and John Alvbåge while adding experienced stars Pontus Farnerud and Norwegian international Kjetil Waehler.
The biggest change, however, came at the top. Göteborg parted company with former head coach Jonas Olsson and hired Michael Stahre. The former AIK and Panionos manager led AIK to a surprise gold medal in 2009 and IFK believes Stahre can bring a measure of top-flight stability to the team.
“He’s been awesome,” Alvbåge said. He has been really good. He doesn’t talk about AIK at all and he is young as a head coach but he has won Allsvenskan gold, was in Greece and has a lot of experience. We’re happy to have him.”
Alvbåge said Stahre has spent much of his time getting the new players to mesh with the old, talking tactics and positioning.
“It’s football,” Alvbåge said. “It feels good.”
Alvbåge and the rest of Sweden will learn just how good IFK Göteborg can be when the Angels face Syrianska March 31 at Sodertalje Football Arena. It should be the start of what could prove to be a golden season for Göteborg.

Göteborg the favorite
If coaches and pundits are correct, it’s probably even money which team can claim the 2012 championship between Malmö, Göteborg, Elfsborg and Helsingborg. Göteborg can easily make claim to have the strongest lineup on paper. Pontus Farnerud, who joined IFK from Stabaek in Norway after four years in France and one in Portugal, brings in a wealth of talent and experience. Farnerud was an on-again, off-again Swedish international and his experience in Champions League play could prove invaluable.
What makes Göteborg so strong, however, is the core of players it had even before making its big-name moves. Striker and Swedish international Tobias Hysen continues to thrive and is the players’ choice to win the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer this season. Former Swedish international Stefan Selakovic could find many more offensive opportunities with Farnerud taking over the central midfield role. Under-21 stars Robin Soder, Tobias Sana and Mikael Dyrestam might just find it difficult to get a lot of playing time, especially Dyrestam, who essentially saw his central midfield role disappear with the arrival of Wahler from Danish club Aalborg. Göteborg also picked up arguably the best Swedish goalkeeper in the league in John Alvbåge, who rejoined IFK from Örebro.
The real question for “Real Göteborg” is just how quickly new manager Stahre can pull his team of stars together. Daniel Sobralense, who joined IFK from Kalmar over the winter, held out for two months in a beef over his contract but when he did join the team in February, he at least appeared happy.
Stahre’s biggest headache could well be keeping his high-priced players happy. His saving grace could be the fact that Göteborg, with its depth, could endure the loss of one or two of its big names and not suffer too much on the field.


Malmö challenge
If Göteborg is the team to beat, Malmö is the team that can beat it. The 2010 champions continue to rely on its core of young, talented players. Although it lost Agon Mehmeti over the off season in a transfer to Palermo in Italy, Malmö continues to boast the top young stars in Swedish football, and it added to that stable by picking up goalkeeping prodigy Victor Noring from now-relegated Trelleborg and prying Simon Thern loose from Helsingborg.
The 20-year-old Thern, son of former Swedish star Jonas Thern, joins newcomer Erik Friberg in the midfield. Friberg returned to Sweden after a year in the U.S. with Seattle. Malmö already had a high-powered offense, with Under-21 star Daniel Larsson and 2010 league leading scorer Mattias Ranegie working up front along with Dardan Rexhepi. Jiloan Hamad and Wilton Figueiredo are also back in the midfield, while defensively, Malmö is looking to Jimmy Durmaz to return to form and replace Yago Fernandez, who returned to Portugal.
Malmö also bolstered its goalkeeping, snapping up Victor Noring, who remains an interest of Juventus in Italy, as well as Danish net minder Robin Olsen.

Elfsborg reloads
Third on the list is Elfsborg, which is arguably the steadiest team in Sweden over the past six years. The Borås club has never finished lower than fourth over that span, but has only one title to show for its resilience.
One Elfsborg’s bigger problems was in finishing. The Borås side has more draws than any team in the Allsvenskan in the past six years – many of them coming because Elfsborg simply could find the killer goal. Elfsborg fired head coach Magnus Haglund, replacing him with Swedish Under-21 boss Jörgen Lennartsson, whose attacking brand of football is exactly what the club’s directors want. Elfsborg also brought in Norwegian midfielder Joakim Jorgensen to bolster a unit that already included Stefan Ishizaki and Swedish international Anders Svensson. Up front, Under-21 international Amadou Jawo – whom several teams covet – will finally get his chance to show what he can do alongside David Elm and Lasse Nilsson.
The biggest change came in goal. Danish international Jesper Christiansen left the team for personal reasons and promptly signed with Odense in Denmark. After a long search, Elfsborg picked up Marcus Stuhr-Ellegaard from SC Heerenveen in Holland. The team’s new Danish goalkeeper, however, proved just as brittle as its old one; Ellegaard went down with an injury and was doubtful for Elfsborg’s opener March 31 against Djurgården.

Helsingborg dark horse
Last year, Helsingborg won the title by playing remarkably consistent football. The defending champions went unbeaten in the first half of the season. In the second half, HIF continued to win despite losing nearly half its starting side to transfers, although the quality of its play diminished.
This season, many of the new faces from the fall are gone, replaced by an even newer group. How quickly head coach Conny Karlsson can meld the group will determine HIF’s fate this season.
To replace departed strikers Alexander Gerndt, Rasmus Jönsson and Peter Larsson, Karlsson brought in Brazilian star Alvaro Santos and Icelandic international Alfred Finnbogason and held onto Norwegian Thomas Sörum, who was a fall transfer last season.
Karlsson rebuilt his midfield after losing Simon Thern and Marcus Holgersson. Marcus Bergholtz returned the Sweden from Stabaek in Norway and pried Daniel Nordmark away from Elfsborg.
HIF also strengthened its defense, adding bruising centerback Walid Atta. The former AIK defender found himself on the outs at Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia when Karlsson invited him to training camp.
Helsingborg still has arguably the best goalkeeping tandem in the league in team captain Par Hansson and Daniel Andersson.

AIK, Kalmar, GAIS, Häcken
If Göteborg proves it is head and shoulders above the rest of the Allsvenskan, then any one of seven teams could fight for second, third and fourth place. Although right now Malmö, Elfsborg and Helsingborg occupy those spots, they could easily swap places with AIK, Kalmar, GAIS or Häcken.
It’s tough to call what AIK accomplished last year a surprise, given the talent the team had in Mohammed and Ibrahim Bangura, both of whom moved overseas. The Banguras accounted for more than half of AIK’s 47 goals last season. To replace them, AIK picked up Costa Rica international Celso Borges from Fredrikstad in Norway, where he scored 15 goals in 47 games and also had 26 assists. AIK also signed strikers Pontus Engblom from Sundsvall and Alhassan Kamara, a Sierra Leonean player who was at Division 1 North side Bodens IK. The signing of Borges is especially big if AIK is to again challenge for the title, but the hodge-podge of forwards, from the new signings to last year’s pickups of Kwame Karikari and Lalawele Atakori simply may not be enough for the Gnaget to crack the top four.
Once a haven for young Brazilian talents, Kalmar is suddenly the in-place for young talent from anywhere other than Brazil. Kalmar sold off or cut all but one South American – keeping Daniel Mendes. Kalmar brought in Senegalese star Papa Diouf and Costa Rican international Jonathan McDonald to bolster its attack as well as Nedan Dordevic, a Serbian international, on defense. In arguably its boldest move of late, Kalmar also signed a pair of young Norwegian players – Jorgen Skjelvik and Mats Solheim. Head coach Nanne Bergstrand believes Kalmar, which is nearly unbeatable at home, can contend for the gold. It can, but likely can’t repeat its 2008 championship season.
The surprise team of the season could be BK Häcken, which has proven it can be a top-four or –five side. The Göteborg side has made a living out of recasting old or castoff players and this season is no different. Häcken snapped up Andreas Drugge from IFK Göteborg to strengthen its offense. Drugge spent two unhappy seasons with IFK where he never quite lived up to his potential. Häcken also signed Honduran international Gabriel Hernandez while keeping the bulk of its team from last year together. Häcken finished in sixth place in 2011 and ought to come close to that again.
The third Göteborg side in the league might just boast two of the most talented and most coveted players in Sweden. GAIS finished fifth last year, despite the uncertainty surrounding a transfer of Brazilian striker Wanderson do Carmo and the seeming certainty of the transfer of Mervan Celik. Wanderson stayed and Celik left for Glasgow Rangers, but when the Scottish side declared bankruptcy and could not pay the transfer fee, Celik returned to GAIS.
Together again, the tandem form one of the most lethal midfield-forward combinations in the league. GAIS, however, did little to correct its most glaring problems from last season – goalkeeping. Dime Jankulovsky remains one of the more enigmatic players in the league, capable of stopping penalties one minute and allowing extremely soft – and team-deflating – goals the next. Jankulovsky is good, but not good enough and with him, the best GAIS can do is repeat it showing from last year.

Best of the rest
After the top-eight teams, it’s anyone’s guess as to how the rest of the league might shape up. Djurgården and Örebro come into 2012 looking to make up for disappointing 2011 seasons, while Gefle and IFK Norrköping might just surprise a few teams.
Djurgården spent most of last season trying to avoid relegation. It couldn’t score – so new head coach Magnus Pehrsson went out and bought a new offense. Its midfield was weak, so Pehrsson replaced it. The back line and goalkeeper Dembo Tourray were also disappointments – or wanted too much money stay – so DIF replaced them as well., All told, Djurgården signed nine new players, all of whom are likely to start March 31 in the opener against Elfsborg.
Danish net minder Kasper Jensen takes over in goal. He has countryman Marc Pedersen and PSV Frankfurt transfer Martin Dahlen in front of him. In the midfield, mainstay Daniel Sjolund has a bevy talent around him, including newcomers Yusif Cjibsah, who moved to Stockholm from King Faisal in Saudi Arabia and American Brian Span, who signed out of the University of Virginia. Up front, James Keene and Ricardo Santos form the new strike duo.
On paper, it’s a load of talent, but Djurgården has had loads of talent before. DIF will win more than it loses, but it’s simply too many changes too quickly for it to really contend.
Örebro is also looking to rebound, bringing in 10 new players. OSK signed Jonas Sandqvist to replace goalkeeper John Alvbåge, who moved to Göteborg, but how quickly Sandqvist can replace the leadership vacuum Alvbåge left remains to be seen. Örebro has signed 17 new players in the past two years, essentially building an entirely new team. Some names stand out – midfielder Tobias Grahn, striker Valdet Rama and defender Eidur Aron Sigbjornsson. Others have tons of potential – Marcus Atsvald, Kustrim Lukstashu and William Arashkadeh. Still others are known commodities – Samuel Wowoah, Patrik Anttonen, Daniel Bamberg and Patrik Haginge. Unfortunately for Örebro, its biggest potential star, Andreas Haddad, remains injury prone and still on the sidelines.
Like Djurgården, Örebro has too much talent to fail, Like Djurgården, it has made too many changes to really succeed.
IFK Norrköping made a huge splash in the offseason, signing world-class talents Morten Skjönsberg from Stabaek in Norway and Luxembourg international Lars Gersom. Skjönsberg give instant credibility to a Peking defensive unit that relied on again castoffs last season. Gersom, coupled with Swedish Under-21 star Astrit Ajdarevic, could prove to be one of the more exciting midfield combinations in the league. Up front, however, not much changed from a team scored just 32 goals last year.
Gefle took steps toward improving its goal total, bringing Johan Oremo back from Djurgården, where spent three unhappy and unproductive seasons. Beyond that, it’s the same team that finished ninth in 2011.

Bottom four
This season could well go down in history as the season without a truly weak link. Mjällby and Syrianska now have a couple of Allsvenskan season under their belts and know how to deal with the pressure of living near the relegation zone.
Mjällby added to its offense and team character, picking up striker Markus Pode from relegated Trelleborg. Syrianska added seven new players, including much-traveled Louay Chanko and two new goalkeepers in Malmö castoff Dejan Garda and Norwegian Lasse Staw.
Newcomers Åtvidaberg and Sundsvall attempted to add depth to the teams that earned them promotion from the Superettan. Åtvidaberg signed Cameroon international Alain Ollie Ollie and Ghana international Emanuel Dogbe while Sundsvall signed all Swedish players.
Of the four teams, the newcomers are most likely to occupy the bottom spots in the standings.
by Chipp Reid