Here we are, the start of yet another Tippeligaen season that promises to be just as exciting and nail biting as the last! Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s league-winning Molde side start the new season looking to retain the title and become the first side other than Rosenborg to win back-to-back titles since Vålerenga in 1983 and 1984.
It’s safe to say that Rosenborg have dominated Norwegian football in the last two decades, winning thirteen titles in a row from 1992 to 2004, as well as claiming titles in 2006, 2009 and 2010, but the gap between Rosenborg and its nearest competitors has become increasingly smaller since Vålerenga’s title-winning season of 2005, not to mention the last six seasons seeing Brann, Stabæk and, of course, Molde all winning the title as well. But, their poor start to last season and third-place finish would have hurt Rosenborg, and they will be determined to start 2012 much more positively than 2011 to avoid yet another disappointing slip in form.
As for the bottom of the table, newcomers Hønefoss and Sandnes Ulf will be looking to impress as they replace Start and Sarpsborg 08, two sides that looked certain for relegation as early as only the mid-point of last season. After being relegated from the top flight in 2010, Hønefoss find themselves alongside the big boys once again after an impressive season, finishing top of the table, just one point in front of an equally impressive Sandnes Ulf side that managed to win 18 out of 30 games compared to Hønefoss’ 16. However, Sandnes Ulf find themselves in the Premier League for the first time since its formation over one hundred years ago and just one year after they marginally escaped relegation from the Adeccoligaen thanks to the unfortunate demotion of Follo for financial reasons. Sandnes Ulf have found themselves playing in the third-tier as recently as 2009 and in the fourth-tier in only 2003, so there is no doubt that this new season is going to be a difficult one for the boys in baby blue.
Molde kicked off the 2012 Tippeligaen season in front of just over 9000 fans at the Aker Stadion when they hosted last year’s eighth-place finishing side and 2010 Norwegian Cup winners Strømgodset on Friday evening. A win was vital for Solskjær’s men to help them on their way to holding off Rosenborg and retaining the league title, and, despite a few nervy moments, the home side delivered with a 2-1 win, both goals showing the brilliance that we were shown in abundance last season, not to mention truly Molde-esque flair. After a disappointingly lackluster and slow first half from both sides, Davy Claude Angan put the home side ahead on the 67th minute after a poor defensive mix-up allowed Jo Inge Berget to knock a soft through ball for Angan in front of goal where the Ivorian striker placed the ball beautifully into the top right-hand corner of the net. American winger Joshua Gatt then doubled Molde’s lead only three minutes later, picking up the ball on the halfway line and embarking on an incredible run through the Strømgodset defence before firing low past Adam Kwarasey. Molde pushed for a third but were unable to find the back of the net, Daniel Berg Hestad hitting the top of the bar with a headed effort not long after Gatt’s goal and Angan, unbelievably, managing to miss a virtually open goal and hit the bar from a Tripić pass across the box after a 60 yard run from the young Norwegian down the left of the pitch. The visitors managed to pull one back with only four minutes to go thanks to a beautiful twisted volley on the edge of box from substitute Gustav Wikheim only moments after entering the pitch, but, despite an obviously nervous performance from the Molde defence in the final minutes, the home side managed to hold on and claim all three points and a well-deserved flying start to the season.
Saturday saw newly promoted Hønefoss host Lillestrøm. After three consecutive fourth place finishes between 2005 and 2007, Lillestrøm’s form has dropped in recent years, 2008 seeing them finish 12th, marginally avoiding relegation and finishing in a double-figure league position for the first time since 1997, and 2011 saw a poorly organised and mediocre side finish in 13th, adding to the woes of a club who were once upon a time fighting against some of Europe’s biggest clubs in Europe’s biggest competitions. Saturday’s trip to the Aka Arena would be the perfect opportunity for Lillestrøm to start their 2012 campaign positively with a win, but it was not to be, neither side finding themselves able to find the back of the net in a game that saw few chances being produced. Hønefoss will be happy with the point but Lillestrøm will know that they will have to do better if they want to have any chance of a single-digit league finish this season for the first time since 2007.
The majority of the weekend’s games were played on Sunday, five in total from as far north as Tromsø where the snow was falling to as far south as Skien where the sun was out shining. Despite the harsh conditions, last year’s second place side Tromsø got off to a good start, a single goal from substitute Zdenek Ondrášek just moments after coming on in his first game giving them all three points against Fredrikstad.
After a disappointing seventh place finish last season after finishing second in 2010, Vålerenga too got off to a good start with a 2-1 win against Haugesund, despite leaving it rather late to do so. Sent down to ten men after just 33 minutes when referee Per Ivar Staberg sent off Martin Bjørnbak, Haugesund went ahead five minutes later through a Đurđić penalty kick after Vålerenga defender Dawda Leigh brought down Tor Arne Andreassen in the penalty area. It wasn’t until the 83rd minute that Vålerenga were able to find an equaliser, Havard Nielsen finishing in front of goal from a Harmeet Singh cross. Substitute Martin Pusic – like Ondrášek, a new signing – then won all three points for the home side with a headed effort from yet another cross from Singh two minutes into stoppage time, the Austrian new boy then revealing his “I love Jesus” undershirt to the crowd in celebration.
Unfortunately for the winners of the 2008 season, Stabæk’s first game back at the Nadderud Stadion saw them only manage a pretty dull 0-0 draw against Aalesund. In a game of few good chances, Aalesund goalkeeper Sten Grytebust kept the away side level with several impressive saves, but it was Michael Barrantes who got closest to hitting the back of the net, his thunderous attempt from thirty yards out beating Jan Kjell Larsen but crashing against the bar, the strike so nearly putting the visitors ahead.
The weekend’s highest scoring, not to mention most impressive and most shocking result, came in the game between Odd Grenland and Sogndal. After an impressive surge late last season which saw the boys from Skien finish in fifth, Odd Grenland were looking for a good start to their 2012 campaign if they were to have any hope of pushing for a higher finish this season, but it was not to be. Sogndal, who narrowly avoided relegation last season in their first season in the top flight since 2004, absolutely thumped Odd Grenland 4-0, two goals coming from Tonny Brochmann and one each for Ørjan Hopen and Henrik Furebotn. Odd Grenland started off well, Frode Johnsen having a headed effort hit the crossbar after half an hour, but after a scramble in the box, Brochmann broke through and placed the ball past Andre Hansen at the near post to put the visitors 1-0 up just before half time. At 1-0, an Odd Grenland comeback looked possible, but Hopen doubled Sogndal’s lead when his 25-yard free kick found its way through the defence, bouncing past a stationary Hansen and into the left-hand corner of the net. Brochmann then got his second of the game only seven minutes later, converting a well-placed cross from Malick Mane just in front of the goal, before Furebotn sealed the deal after 71 minutes with a fantastic chip from a few yards outside the box. Noticeably weak and nervy in defence, Odd Grenland have a lot to do if they want to challenge for a top position this season.
Sunday’s last game saw big boys Rosenborg host Brann, the two sides finishing third and fourth, respectively, last season, only one point separating them. After winning 6-3 in the same fixture last season, Brann entered the game with confidence but Steffen Iversen, recently recalled from Crystal Palace, soon put an end to that, tapping away the first goal of the game at the far post from a Bořek Dočkal corner after only nine minutes. As the half wore on, Brann’s fortunes did not improve, goalkeeper Piotr Leciejewski being forced off after a collision with Markus Henriksen, seventeen-year-old substitute goalkeeper Øystein Øvretveit having to come on as his replacement. He quickly made a good impression with his one-handed saving of an awkward Dočkal free kick, but he was unable to deal with Jim Larsen’s bullet header nine minutes after the break, which doubled the home side’s lead. Brann pulled one back through Amin Askar just moments later, the new signing from Fredrikstad pulling off a great one-two with Fredrik Nordkvelle before smashing the ball into the back of the net from the edge of the area, but with just under ten minutes left to play, Rade Prica made it 3-1 and finished off the win for Rosenborg when he rounded Øvretveit after the young goalkeeper had rushed out to the edge of the area to collect the ball before placing it coolly into the back of the net.
The final game of the opening weekend saw newly promoted Sandnes Ulf host nearby Viking on Monday evening at the Sandnes Idrettspark. In their first ever season in the top-tier of Norwegian football, Sandnes Ulf were looking for a bright start against a Viking side that’s form had been considerably slipping in recent years, only managing an 11th place finish last season, far removed from the top three finish and cup final winning year of 2000, not to mention their shock 5-4 aggregate win against Chelsea in the UEFA Cup in 2002. Despite the tough foggy conditions, Sandnes Ulf started strong, pushing hard against a noticeably nervy Viking defence, and it took only twelve minutes for Gilles M’Bang Ondo to put the home side ahead with their first ever Tippeligaen goal on
his debut for the club, Steinthor Freyr Thorsteinsson setting him up with a great pass through the middle of the disjointed Viking defence, the Gabonese striker then firing it in past Rune Jarstein. Sandnes Ulf continued to apply pressure to the visitors but Viking pulled one back fifteen minutes later, another debut goal coming from Henri Anier after he ran in from the right of the box and fired in a deflected shot from just outside the six yard box. Sandnes Ulf defender Aksel Skjølsvik got the last touch off his toe when he tried to clear off the line, but there’s no doubt that Anier will be claiming it for himself. The score line stayed at 1-1 until just before the hour mark when ex-Viking player Vegard Aanestad ran down the right (not dissimilar to Anier earlier) before smashing the ball with serious firepower past a helpless Jarstein to make it 2-1 to Sandnes Ulf. As the fog intensified and Viking’s hopes of breaking down the Sandnes Ulf defence started to look bleak, substitute Erik Nevland headed in at the near post from a beautifully placed Valon Berisha corner to make it 2-2 with just six minutes left to play, only seven minutes after he entered the pitch himself. It had taken until the last ten minutes for Viking to finally wake up, but it was too late and Sandnes Ulf were able to hold on to a very well earned point. If they continue to play with that intensity and drive for the rest of the season, there is no doubt that they will be safe from relegation in November.
After an action-packed and exciting opening weekend to this year’s Tippeligaen, it is Sogndal that top the table thanks to their incredibly impressive and somewhat shocking 4-0 victory away to Odd Grenland. Rosenborg, Molde, Vålerenga and Tromsø all lie on three points as well, and with games against Lillestrøm, Haugesund, Strømgodset and Stabæk, respectively, coming up in Round 2, they will all be looking to make it six as they look to start their title pushes nice and early. There’s no doubt that this is going to be a close season. I can’t wait!