For most soccer fans, 2011 will be remembered mostly for the dominance of FC Barcelona, as the club accumulated four major trophies through the year. But FC Barcelona was just one of several clubs to win league titles throughout the year.
Many clubs continued its winning ways by successfully defending its league title, while others ended droughts ranging from two to 78 years. But tt was in five nations that the best stories of 2011 unfolded: Romania, Northern Ireland, France, Norway and Belgium.
It seemed that not too long ago, Bucharest was where the best Romanian clubs played. Between 1980 and 2007, only one club outside of Bucharest won the country's top division. In the four years after 2007, Romania has seen maiden champions come from three different regions. None were as surprising as what unfolded in eastern Romania.
Prior to the 2010-11 season, FC Otelul Galati never finished higher than fourth in Romania's top division. Two seasons earlier, the club was in first place in the league after four games, but never contended; the club finished in 12th place. In 2011, FC Otelul Galati benefited from an excellent home record that saw the club unbeaten at home in the regular season, winning 12 of the 17 matches.
The club lacked a star player in the season, as FC Otelul Galati had no player score more than eight goals; however, the club did have a former star as their manager. Romania's most capped player entered his second season for the club as the manager. By May 2011, Dorinel Munteanu, a member of four major tournaments, would guide the club to play in the UEFA Champions League in Sept. 2011.
FC Otelul Galati impressed late in the season to overtake Politehnica Timişoara in the league. FC Otelul Galati began the month of May by winning 1-0 victory at CFR Cluj, winning the first of five games in the month. On May 17, FC Oţelul Galaţi notched six points. First, FC Otelul Galati defeated Politehnica Timisoara 2-1 in a battle to determine who would be in control of Liga I. Then, following that match, the Court of Arbitration for Sport awarded FC Otelul Galati a 3-0 victory over CS Pandurii Targu Jiu (the match was supposed to be played in February) because of Pandurii's unpaid debts, as FC Otelul Galati were assured the title.
Ask even the most ardent fans who is the best team in the United Kingdom, and few might mention a club from Northern Ireland. Since 1890, Linfield FC has been the best club in Northern Ireland. In 2011, Linfield FC dominated the league by winning 26 matches in 38 games, while amassing a paltry plus-51 goal differential.
That goal differential was possible with many lopsided matches: these matches include an 8-1 drubbing of Crusaders FC, a 6-2 victory over Donegal Celtic, and two road 4-0 at Lisburn Distillery, the latter clinching Linfield FC's 50th league title with four games to spare.
Linfield FC's primarily scoring threat was Peter Thompson, who was beginning his second stint for the club. After scoring 89 goals between 2001 and 2008, Thompson returned to the club with gusto by leading the league with 23 goals.
While Linfield FC recorded its 50th league title, another club finally tasted a league title for the first time since 1954. The last time LOSC Lille Metropole won France's Ligue 1 came weeks before the 1954 World Cup; Andre Strappe led the club to the title over Stade de Reims and Bordeaux by a single point. In 2011, LOSC Lille Metropole had a more multicultural influence throughout the season that saw not only finish eight points clear of reigning champions Marseille, but also win the French League Cup.
LOSC Lille Metropole won 21 matches and lost only four matches throughout the 38-game season. That impressive record included a sweep of both games of the Derby du Nord against RC Lens, a 6-3 victory over Lorient and a 2-1 road victory at Marseille.
However, LOSC Lille Metropole only clinched the title with one game to spare; the club did so by getting the point it needed in a 2-2 draw away at Paris Saint-Germain. In that match, Senegalese striker Moussa Sow extended his league lead to 22 goals. In the next game, Sow notched a hat trick to take his tally to 25 goals in a 3-2 victory over Rennes.
Besides Sow, Many other players contributed to LOSC Lille Metropole's success. In addition to. Ivorian striker Gervihno scored with 15 goals, while also adding nine assists. A member of France's 2001 and 2003 Confederations Cup teams, Mickaёl Landreau was the club's primary goalkeeper. No player impacted Lille more than Eden Hazard. Having been voted France's best young player in the two previous seasons, Hazard would top that by being voted as France's Player of the Season, with his signature moment coming late in the season: his only goal of the match secured a crucial 1-0 victory at Nancy Lorraine.
Entering its 100th year of existence, Molde had only two signature moments in their history: in 1999, Molde overcame Mallorca (Spain) on an away goal to reach the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Two months later, Molde overcame a 2-0 deficit to defeat Olympiacos. Molde reached this tournament by finishing second in the Tippeligaen the season prior, but that is one of seven second-place finished; the club had yet to still win a title. Molde was looking to continue its winning ways, having finished unbeaten in the final eight games of 2010 to avoid relegation.
To continue it winning ways, Molde hired a former player revered in England for his role as the "Super Sub." Having played for Molde in two seasons, Ole Gunnar Solskjær entered his first season as manager in 2011. Things did not start well: Molde opened its season with a 3-0 loss at Sarpsborg 08. But after that loss and two draws, Molde found their form, winning 14 of their next 18 games. That included a June 29 match at Valerenga that was moved due to a player strike: Molde won 2-1 to go top of the table and would eventually stay there for the rest of the season.
Molde lost both games to perennial contenders Rosenborg during the season, but Rosenborg struggled surprisingly. Molde took advantage by going unbeaten in 10 straight matches following a 3-1 loss at Rosenborg on Aug. 7. One of those games including a home match against Strømsgodset on Oct. 30: Molde allowed a late equalizing goal to finish 2-2. However, Rosenborg lost at home to Brann 6-3, allowing Molde to win the Tippeligaen with two games to spare.
Leading Molde in scoring was Senegalese striker Pape Pate Diouf with 12 goals. Diouf's best performance during the season came on July 3, when he scored four goals in a 5-2 home victory over Aalesund.
But perhaps the most inexplicable situation that unfolded came down to a halved point. Genk finished one point behind Anderlecht in the Jupiler League in 2011; that was enough for Genk to win the league over sixth-place Standard de Liege, despite going unbeaten in the final 10 matches.
This happened because Belgium's championship playoff had a unique system. After 30 matches, the point values for the top six clubs were halved and rounded up. If a team's point value was rounded up, that point value would be deducted in case of a tie. Genk and Lokeren did not have its halved point rounded up, so the two clubs would be ahead of the other four clubs on tiebreakers.
With Anderlecht struggling losing its season finale 4-3 against Lokeren on May 17, Genk's home match against Standard Liege would determine who would win the league title on that same day. After nine rounds, Standard Liege won eight games; the club was was on course for the title, following a late first half goal from Eliaquim Mangala.
Genk just needed a draw to win the title; but with his club losing 1-0, manager Frank Vercauteren made a crucial substitution that proved pivotal: two minutes after coming into the match, Kennedy Nwanganga scored the tying goal. With goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois making crucial saves for his club, Genk hung on for the 1-1 draw to win just the clubs third league title to go with their successes in 1999 and 2002.
Over the course of 2011, Europe witnessed many different champions crowned among the 53 nations. But it was in Romania, Northern Ireland, France, Norway and Belgium that the best stories unfolded in a year that was dominated by Barcelona.