In 2012, Europe witnessed a flurry of emotions: A dynasty in Croatia, a marathon season in Russia, a coming out story in Denmark, an end to a title drought in Cyprus, a performance in Bulgaria similar to Kaiserslautern’s 1998 triumph and the comforts at home in France for a maiden winner.
Russia’s regular season began on Mar. 12, 2011, as the country transitioned to play an autumn-spring schedule in the future. Reigning champions Zenit St. Petersburg trailed CSKA Moscow by seven points after 16 matches: two notable losses that stood out included a 2-1 loss at Tom Tomsk and a 1-1 draw against CSKA Moscow that became a 3-0 loss due to violation of league regulations regarding roster personnel.
Zenit overturned that deficit in style, and its most valuable player was Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who was making his second stint with the club. Despite an ankle injury, Kerzhakov finished second in scoring with 23 goals. He was one of nine Zenit players voted as one of the league’s top 33 players, along with more established players for the club, including goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev.
Kerzhakov scored the second goal in Zenit’s 2-1 victory over Dynamo Moscow on Apr. 28, 2012; this match gave Zenit the league title with three matches to play. Zenit led CSKA Moscow by five points after 30 games, as Zenit would have to fend off four Moscow clubs, Anzhi Makhachkala, Rubin Kazan and Kuban Krasnodar for the title. After seven wins, six draws and a meaningless 3-2 loss at home against Spartak Moscow, Zenit finished 13 points clear of Spartak Moscow, having only lost four times during the 44-game season.
In 2012, no club won its domestic league emphatically than that of Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb. Internationally, Dinamo Zagreb’s main story was a managerial change that happened because of the club’s struggles during the Champions League. In fact, before taking the job at Dinamo Zagreb, Ante Čačić became the manager for city rivals Lokomotiv Zagreb two months earlier.
But Čačić managed Dinamo Zagreb to its best season in Croatia’s league history. In 2011, Dinamo Zagreb won the league title by 17 points over Hadjuk Split. The same story unfolded in 2012, when Dinamo Zagreb lost only one game in 30 matches. Consider how dominate Dinamo Zagreb was since the league’s inception in 1992: with five games to spare, Dinamo Zagreb won 3-0 at Sibenik to clinch the club’s seventh straight league title and 14th overall since 1993.
Dinamo Zagreb outscored all opponents 38-4 at home, including victories of 5-0, 6-0 and 7-0.Maksimir Stadium was a house of horrors for visiting clubs,a RNK Split and NK Zadar (the only team that defeated Dinamo Zagreb that season) managed to draw there. Dinamo Zagreb also impressed away, as the club recorded three 4-0 victories on the road.
Goalkeeper Ivan Kelava was hard to breach, as Dinamo Zagreb conceded only 11 goals in 30 games. The club also boasted both the currents and previous seasons’ leading scorers. Montenegrin-born Fatos Beciraj began slowly, but his 15 goals made him the first foreign-born player to lead the Prva NHL in scoring. A season ago, Ivan Krstanovic scored 19 goals for NK Zagreb; in 2012, he finished second in scoring for Dinamo Zagreb with 10 goals.
Another club fired its manager despite leading its domestic league. However, København was unable to win a fourth straight Danish Superliga; instead, the winner came from a town whose population is 65 times less than that of the Danish capital.
One of Denmark’s up and coming clubs plays in Farum; Nordsjælland enjoyed recent success in 2010 and 2011 by claiming the Danish Cup both years. These were the first trophies for a club who never finished higher than fifth after rebranding. Beginning his first season as manager for Nordsjælland, Kasper Hjulmand saw his club enjoy some early successes at Farum Park and misery away, as Nordsjælland lost four of their first five road games, including a 2-0 defeat at Parken Stadium, home of FC København, on July 30, 2011.
FC Nordsjælland returned to Parken Stadium three months later and scalped an impressive 3-1 upset, with Søren Christensen scored the opening goal; it would be one of his eight goals during the season to make his co-leader in scoring for a club that finished fourth in goals. Following that triumph, FC Nordsjælland suffered a shocking 1-0 home loss against Lyngby. But Nordsjælland improved and chased down København’s dynasty, with late in the season deciding the title winner.
Also co-leader in scoring with eight goals, Mikkel Beckmann scored the only goal as Nordsjælland won 1-0 on May 2 against København. On May 20, Nordsjælland would in be in control of its destiny: their 1-0 victory at Brøndby coupled with København’s loss at Midtjylland meant Nordsjælland was leading the league going into the season finale in three days. Still, Nordsjælland had to win: a draw against Horsens plus a København win over Silkeborg mean Nordsjælland loses to the title to København on goal difference.
But Nordsjælland won when it matters, as Beckmann began the scoring for FC Nordsjælland; Andreas Laudrup and Andrea Bjelland scored late goals to give Nordsjælland its first ever Danish Superliga thanks to the 3-0 victory over Horsens.
Most fans remember Manchester City’s triumph in 2012, when they won the Premier League on goal difference over city rivals Manchester United on goal difference. That was Manchester City’s first title since 1968, ending a 44-year drought. There was another club that ended a 44-year title drought, and the club came from a country that had made headlines for its performances in the Champions League.
APOEL FC defied the odds by reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League in 2012, but Limassol would be the site of a title triumph.
In 2011, AEL Limassol finished in eighth place; thanks to tiebreakers, the club staved off a round to stave off relegation. Cyprus usually has three clubs dominating the league, but AEL Limassol finished top of the table by winning 18 out of 26 matches. AEL Limassol impressed especially on the road: the club allowed two goals, while the club notched 1-0 victories at Anorthosis and APOEL. The goalkeeper in charge was Matia Omar Degra; he impressed not only in his defensive prowess, but also his panache for saving penalty kicks.
After 22 games, AEL Limassol had to fend off APOEL, Anorthosis and Omonia Nicosia (whom AEL Limassol lost to twice in the league) to win the league title. AEL Limassol made use of its home field to amass seven out of nine points against the three Cypriot giants. Home for the club is Tsirion Stadium , where AEL Limassol clinched its first league title since 1968 with one game to spare. A goal from Luciano Bebe in the 74th minute was enough as AEL Limassol defeated Anorthosis 1-0 on May 5 to win the club’s sixth overall league title.
No champion in 2012 rose quickly than that from Bulgaria, as not since 1998 had a club won the top flight league title after being promoted a season ago.
Founded in 2001, Ludogorets Razgrad finished its first season in 2011 with the club winning the East portion of the B Group and automatic promotion to the A Group. Ludogorets faced some of Bulgaria’s most storied clubs the following season: Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia (both with a combined 57 league titles), as well as two-time reigning champions Litex Lovech.
Amazingly, the success continued in the beginning of the season. Ludogorets followed up its season-opening home scoreless draw against Lokomotiv Plovdiv by winning eight straight games; the signature victory in that streak was a 2-1 victory over Levski Sofia. Emil Gargorov scored the winning goal in the match, one of his 13 goals during the season.
The club lost three straight after that 25-point start, but Ludogorets focused on their goal. Defensively, Ludogorets only allowed 16 goals during the season, six of which came at home. Along with Gargorov, Ilyo Stoyanov finished as co-leader in scoring with 16 goals. But no goal would be more important than that from Miroslav Ivanov.
His fourth goal came in Ludogorets’ final match of the season against CSKA Sofia: this match would determine the winner of the league, with Ludogorets needing a win to do so. Ivanov’s goal came in the 19th minute, and the club had an opportunity to score more when CSKA Sofia was reduced to 10 men. In the second half, Ludogorets would finish the game with 10 men as well; CSKA missed two chances that hit the crossbar, while goalkeeper Uros Golubovic made a crucial save to give Ludogorets a shocking maiden triumph thanks to the 1-0 victory over CSKA Sofia.
Finally, no league produced a stunning champion more than that of France’s Ligue 1, who had crowned its fifth different champions in succession. This club came out of nowhere, especially given that its disciplinary record was the worst among the 20 Ligue 1 teams.
Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, Montpellier boasted several notable names in soccer: Roger Milla, Eric Cantona, Carlos Valderrama, Laurent Blanc and Aime Jacquet, manager of France’s 1998 World Cup squad. Blanc and Cantona were on Montpellier’s 1990 Coupe de France Final, which was the club’s last major tournament.
Going into the 2011-12 season, experts had predicted Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to win the title after their big spending offseason; Montpellier had more modest ambitions, which would be tested in a 3-0 home loss to PSG on Sept. 24, 2011. Montpellier went about their business throughout the season and did so at home.
Known to have hosted matches at the 1998 World Cup, Stade de las Mosson saw Montpellier record 1-0 victories over Lille, Lyon and Marseille during the season; the club’s 50 points at home was the most in Ligue 1 in 19 years. The club also won an entertaining 5-3 match against Dijon FCO: the star of that match was Oliver Giroud, who scored a hat trick in that game and would repeat the trick a month later in a 3-1 victory at Sochaux. Giroud finished as co-leader in scoring with 21 goals, while Younes Belhanda finished with 12 goals for the club and was voted France’s Young Player of the Year.
The signature moment for Belhanda came on Apr. 27, 2012, when his third-minute strike gave Montpellier a 1-0 victory at Toulouse. Two days later, PSG lost 2-1 at Lille and Montpellier had control of its destiny. That moment almost got lost when Montpellier drew 2-2at home against Evian in a hostile match that saw an ugly fight; Belhanda one of four players shown a red card late in the match. But Montpellier finished the season with three straight wins. The last came at Auxerre, where John Utaka scored both goals as Montpellier won 2-1 to win the Ligue 1 title for the first time ever.
So six nations watched long and dramatic seasons unfolded, and each of the six winners endured some type of adversity to overcome obstacles and win their respective league titles.