By Neel Shelat.
There has been no major league action in the world of football in July, although the Women’s World Cup and the transfer market have kept everyone quite busy. But, a glance elsewhere will reveal a number of interesting stories relevant to on-pitch action in some of the less-followed leagues around the world.
🇲🇲 Myanmar: Shan United’s Continued Three-Year Unbeaten Record
On the face of it, Shan United’s continued unbeaten record in all competitions starting from March 2020 is mightily impressive, but there is a lot of context to consider behind. Of course, the complete stoppage of matches due to the COVID-19 pandemic is one factor, but there is much more to it.
At the time of the pandemic, the Myanmar National League was at the midway point of its season. Having lost two of their first four matches, defending champions Shan United were not even in the top three, though. They won all of their 10 matches following the resumption of the tournament, shooting up to the top spot on the penultimate matchday and staying there at the end.
Having been crowned champions, Shan United naturally had a spot in the AFC Champions League qualifiers for the following. However, they withdrew from the tournament and did not play any games. In fact, they would not be seeing any competitive action in 2021. The reason behind that was the fact that the league season was suspended and eventually abandoned following the Spring Revolution in the country in protest of the coup d’état staged early in the year.
The cup was never resumed after the COVID-enforced break, but the league returned in 2022 when it was held in a centralised venue again due to continued political instability. Shan United were comfortably crowned champions at the end of an invincible season as they won 17 and drew three of their 20 fixtures. Almost three-fourths of the way through the current season, they are yet to taste defeat and are seven points clear at the top of the table.
So, Shan United should be expected to win the title yet again, getting a spot in an AFC competition yet again. Their record could be under serious threat if they do participate in it, but it remains to be seen whether or not they withdraw once more.
🇳🇴 Norway: Geir Bakke Ditches Lillestrøm For Vålerenga
A comparatively far more trivial rivalry was flared up in Norway last month as former Lillestrøm head coach Geir Bakke crossed the divide to join fierce rivals Vålerenga.
Widely regarded as the biggest derby in Norway, this also is one of the most closely-matched ones over the years. Both sides have five Eliteserien titles to their name, while the head-to-head record reads 31-28-30 in Lillestrøm’s favour. Neither of the teams have enjoyed major success recently, though, with Lillestrøm’s last title coming back in 1989 and Vålerenga’s in 2005 (when Bakke was part of the coaching staff).
After taking up a number of positions elsewhere, Bakke eventually joined Lillestrøm as head coach in 2020 right after they had suffered relegation. Backed by a major reset behind the scenes, the now-53-year-old coach did a fantastic job of getting them instantly promoted and followed it up with back-to-back fourth-placed finishes as well as a cup final and a brief European tour. This season too, they are on course to potentially challenge for the final European spot in the league.
Vålerenga, meanwhile, have been quite disappointing lately. They have not troubled the title challengers at all in the last couple of seasons, finishing in mid-table spots. This time around, though, the alarm bells are ringing. Dag-Eilev Fagermo was sacked a third of the way into the league season when Enga had picked up just 10 points from as many matches and were hovering right above the relegation zone.
Things have not gotten much better since. Bakke did win his first match in charge of the club after making the shock switch that completely came out of the blue, but that was only a cup tie. They went on to lose the next three league matches including the most recent one against relegation battlers Sandefjord by conceding deep into stoppage-time, with that result dropping them into the direct relegation zone.
Bakke has a massive job ahead of him in new surroundings, while Lillestrøm seem to be carrying on as they were and will revel in the opportunity of potentially adding a nail to Vålerenga’s coffin when they next meet on the 25th matchday — if Bakke is still around then.
🇱🇹 Lithuania: Panevėžys Widen the Gap At the Top Ahead Of Žalgiris
Across in Lithuania, we have a very interesting title race on our hands. Žalgiris’ three-year title-winning streak is under serious threat from a new challenger.
FK Panevėžys were only founded in 2015, so their rise has been rapid. They were established to fill the void left in the city left by FK Ekranas’ bankruptcy and interestingly started life all the way up in the second tier. After three years of staying afloat there, they won the league in 2018 and with it, promotion to the A Lyga.
They never found themselves worrying about relegation, finishing 5th in their first two seasons as well as winning the cup in 2020. They have slowly been building towards this title charge with 4th and 3rd-placed finishes in the last two seasons, but are now firmly in the driver’s seat.
They have only tasted defeat on one occasion in the league this season — against Žalgiris back in May. Of the rest of their 23 matches played, they have won all but four, continuously controlling proceedings from the top of the standings. Crucially, they extended their lead to six points in the most recent round of fixtures, beating Žalgiris at their home. They also have a game in hand, so with 13 fixtures left, the title seems to be theirs to lose.
🇸🇪 Sweden: Shock Leaders Elfsborg Being Hunted Down
We have got a much closer title race in Sweden, where a recent result blew things apart at the top.
Having finished 6th last season, Elfsborg were not really in the title race discussion at the start of the season. They lost their opener against defending champions BK Häcken and failed to win the subsequent fixture, but really clicked thereafter and put together an incredible eight-match winning run to shoot up to the top of the standings. Their unbeaten record extended to 14 games, leading up to the reverse fixture against Häcken.
Elfsborg were the visitors for that match, but they would have backed themselves thanks to their unbeaten away record in the league. Things got off to a great start for them as they took the lead 22 minutes in, and even though they conceded an equaliser moments later, they would have been the happier side going into the half-time break because the hosts received a red card. Everyone expected them to win it in the second half, but Häcken scored twice before the hour-mark and held on to a massive 3-1 win.
With that, they closed the gap at the top down to one point, although they have played an extra match. Record champions Malmö are hot on their heels too, while Djurgården might be outside contenders if they can string together a good run of results. In any case, the Allsvenskan title race is set to be a memorable one as we enter the final third of the season.
Stats courtesy of Transfermarkt and FotMob.