After their 4-1 aggregate win in their Second Qualifying Round tie against Welsh side TNS, Legia Warszawa were paired with Norwegian champions FK Molde – the winner being guaranteed a place in the Europa League Group Stage at a minimum. EKSTRAKLASAreview has asked Norwegian football expert Brendan Husebø to give us the lowdown on Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side.
2013 has been an unmitigated, astounding embarrassment for Molde. After two consecutive league titles, their only two titles in what have been Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s first two years as manager, they were supposed to have become the elite of Norwegian football. At least second- or third-place was guaranteed even before the season start in March. But, after zero points from four games, six points from ten games and now 18 points from 17 games, even the most unrealistic hopes slipped into the abyss of Romsdalsfjorden. A semi-final place in the Cup and a possible Champions League campaign is all that keeps them afloat.
An easy, sometimes lazy, 3-0 aggregate win over Sligo Rovers got Molde into the third qualifying round. It was the first time in the year when everything went to plan. An uneventful, unobstructed win was a glimpse into the old Molde, the one that would win in any situation, whatever playing style or intensity was required – the one that had been absent from the Aker Stadion since New Year.
Even a calamitous Molde will be buoyed that this year’s Tippeligaen’s leaders, the genuine elite of Norwegian football, were Legia’s European slayers last year. Mix Diskerud’s 87th minute winner made it 3-2 to Rosenborg in last year’s Europa League play-off. In the meantime, Molde were romping to a 4-1 victory over Heerenveen. The difference – or better described, indifference – between the confident, conquering Molde team then and the stumbling, stale Molde now is what most makes their mess so inexplicable.
Molde now have 2013 U21 Euros’ best goalkeeper, Ørjan Nyland. They have the same exciting youngsters and the ever-imposing old guard. They have a fully fit Even Hovland, who was one of Norway’s most promising centre backs before his long layoff last year. They even have the peerless Vegard Forren partnering Hovland, despite an ill-fated six-month stay in Southampton. Perhaps they needed more fresh faces even after two successful years. Perhaps they’d simply fallen foul of Tippeligaen’s curse of totally unexplainable inconsistency, which will strike those who least expect it.
If ever logic is found, selling Magnus Wolff Eikrem won’t have helped. The former Manchester United playmaker took his natural progression and moved to Heerenveen, which only compounds Molde’s lack of authority in the final third into less clout in midfield. But the inevitability of Wolff Eikrem’s move made planning easier, so Solskjær has replaced him with two playmakers who have spent their time learning in an academy in Salford; Etzaz Hussain, bought last year, will be backed up by new arrival Mats Møller Dæhli as the creative force in midfield. The athletic Emmanuel Ekpo will be tasked with breaking up play adding tempo to the game beside Hussain, but the pairing’s infancy might prove to be Molde’s attacking downfall.
With Vegard Forren’s return, at least more defensive stability can be guaranteed. Last spring, they made Norwegians forget about Brede Hangeland’s career steadily entering an autumn stage. If that form comes back and permeates into the rest of the team, 2013 will prove only to be a blip. Either side, Legia will see Martin Linnes has come back from the U21 Euros a better player and that new-signing Per Egil Flo has long been one of the most solid left backs in Norway.
In Tippeligaen, you’re excused even the leakiest defence if you can outscore the opposition. If you can neither play a consistent attack nor get those who you do play to do so consistently, though, then there’s a problem. Their striker, Daniel Chima Chukwu has only scored in four of his 16 games in the league, whilst their equal second top scorer, Joona Toivio is a centre back. Jo Inge Berget, Mattias Moström, Zlatko Tripic, Aliou Coly, the now injured Joshua Gatt, new signing Tommy Høiland or whoever plays seem only to find blind alleys when near the opposition’s box, a problem which might only be cured by a focused counter-attacking game when against quality opposition.
Another plan Solskjær has deployed in Europe is to solidify midfield with 38-year Daniel Berg Hestad and attack down the wing to which Hussain has been moved. With a possession-based stance, a focused wing to attack gives a convergence Molde have a lacked this year. If counter attacking, it adds steel to midfield and allows the most creative players to stay further forward. Whether Solskjær chooses two genuine wingers or not could prove to be the tie-defining decision.
Nyland – Linnes, Hovland, Forren, Flo – Ekpo, Hussain – Moström, Berget, Chima – Høiland.