How does a football club cope with the toils of European football?
The frequency of high intensity matches, fatigue from long travels and disruption of training schedules. It’s a dilemma Norwegian clubs are depressingly unfamiliar with.
The last few years have been barren in terms of success in European football, Rosenborg’s qualification to the group stages of the UEFA cup in 2009 the last notable achievement.
Even when the Trondheim club qualified for the Champions League group stages almost every year between 1995 and 2004, they never really had to juggle their European adventures with any genuine competition domestically.
Rosenborg were so superior in Norway that by the time European giants visited Lerkendal in late autumn they had all but secured the league title, those chilly mid-week games a welcome test of the team’s qualities compared to the almost unbearable lightness of the challenges they faced in Tippeligaen.
Since the start of July, Molde and Rosenborg have played a competitive game on average every four days. That stat that will impress no-one in the top leagues in Europe, especially British teams with their multiple cup tournaments, long league seasons and an intense European schedules for the bigger clubs.
But for two Norwegian clubs used to a 30 game league season, one domestic cup and with limited European success over the last few years, such a fixture list is certainly not the norm.
The balancing act of competing on two fronts, or in Molde’s case three, will continue to the end of the season after both clubs secured qualification to the Europa League group stages on Thursday.
Molde, desperately unlucky to go out to Basel in the Champions League qualification earlier in the month, delivered one of the most impressive and composed performances seen by a Norwegian team in Europe for years, easily beating Heerenveen 2-1 in Holland after taking a 2-0 lead at home in the first leg.
Rosenborg were made to work hard for their qualification, Legia Warsaw going ahead in Trondheim before Tore Reginiussen’s first goal for the club put them back on level terms. With the game heading towards extra time another new signing, Mikkel ‘Mix’ Diskerud, scored three minutes before the end to give Norway two teams in the group stages for the first time since the 2007.
It also gives the two rivals four more big European nights before the league season ends in mid-November. Molde, who are also through to the semi-final in the Norwegian Cup, had looked unaffected by their heavy schedule until this weekend. Winning their last three league games after a European mid-week fixture, they had overhauled Strømsgodset’s six point gap to reclaim top spot.
Their rich vein of form came to a crushing stop on Sunday, or more specifically, after half-time in their away trip to Brann. Davy Angan had given Molde the lead with a composed finish, but whether it was their heavy schedule finally catching up with them or just a very bad day at the office, the team collapsed in the second half.
Kim Ojo set up the Brann’s equaliser two minutes after the break with a delicate knock-down to Armin Askar, who cleverly turned away from Vegard Forren before putting the ball past Espen Bugge Pettersen in the Molde goal. Pettersen’s opposite number Piotr Leciejewski then saved brilliantly from Jo Inge Berget after the Molde striker had been put through on goal after some horrendous Brann defending. That save would prove crucial, as Brann went straight back up the pitch and scored only a minute later, Simon Wangberg getting his first for the club after his summer move from Rosenborg. There was no response from Molde, Ojo securing an emphatic victory with two late goals, the powerful Nigerian taking his tally for the season to eight.
Molde’s first loss in five games meant that Strømsgodset went back on top of the table, although in a less than convincing fashion. Relegation-threatened Sogndal had dominated must of the game at home, only for Muhammed Keita to give the visitors the lead 17 minutes from time. Strømsgodset’s reserve goalkeeper Lars Cramer, in his first start of the season, had looked very uncomfortable when dealing with Sogndal’s crosses throughout the game and only two minutes after the goal he again miscalculated a high ball, allowing Ulrik Flo to beat him in the air and Ricardo Santos to head home the equaliser into an empty net. It was Strømsgodset fourth game in a row without a win, but still enough to take them past Molde on goal difference.
Even though Rosenborg were away to Stabæk, the bottom club were never going to test their ability to perform after the team’s European success mid-week. Stabæk had lost 16 of their first 20 league games, with Rosenborg having lost none of their seven games played after an international fixture this season. Then again, losing haven’t been Rosenborg’s problem this season - winning has. While recording only one league loss so far, they had not yet reached double figures in terms of wins, instead drawing half their matches before Monday’s game.
They lost their most priced asset, Norwegian midfielder Markus Henriksen, to AZ Alkmaar last week although his replacements were already recruited. Aforementioned Diskerud will fill the gap left in central midfield, while Tarik Elyounoussi is a fantastic replacement in the deep-lying forward role Henriksen also occupied at times.
In Elyounoussi, Rosenborg have secured one of Norway’s very best attackers approaching the height of his career. But to get past Stabæk they had to rely on a forward at the very end of his career. Steffen Iversen is in his third spell for his home club and after coming on for the injured Boris Dockal the 35 year old scored two quick goals after the interval to secure the win and putting Rosenborg only one point behind Strømsgodset and Molde in third place.
With Strømsgodset struggling to find their way back to form and the two other title contenders now competing in European throughout the autumn, could room open up for a fourth title challenger?
Tromsø were 15 minutes from being the third Norwegian team to qualify for the Europa League group stages, eventually going out on away goals against Partizan Belgrade. The northernmost top flight club in the world have been one of the most consistent teams in Tippeligaen over the last few years, finishing outside the top three only once in the last four seasons. This weekend’s impressive 1-0 away win over in-form Viking was their third win in a row, leaving them eight points behind the league leaders with a game in hand.
Tromsø have had a very good transfer window, not so much in terms of who they’ve brought in but by managing to keep hold of all their very talented youngsters, including Kara Mbodji and Saliou Ciss who both represented Senegal in the Olympics this summer. Their highly respected coach Per-Mathias Høgmo will not renew his contract after this season and the players seem to have their eyes set on a storming finish to the season for their much-liked boss.
Just like Molde last year, Tromsø are chasing their first ever league championship. The success of their rivals in Europe will have given them the slightest of hope that they may yet achieve unprecedented success domestically.
Week 21 results: Vålerenga 4-0 Sandnes Ulf; Lillestrøm 1-2 Fredrikstad; Aalesund 1-0 Hønefoss; Haugesund 0-1 Odd Grenland; Sogndal 1-1 Strømsgodset; Viking 0-1 Tromsø; Brann 4-1 Molde; Stabæk 0-2 Rosenborg.
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