"It's difficult to defend the title," said IF Elfsborg's Jörgen Lennartsson prior to Sunday's Allsvenskan kick-off as a pack of challengers prepare to test the champions' credentials.
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With the Allsvenskan's 2013 edition kicking off on Sunday, champions IF Elfsborg are the team to beat according to their rivals, with half of the 16 top-flight coaches predicting that Jörgen Lennartsson's men will lift the trophy for a seventh time in November. However, the man who led Di Gule to a first championship in six years, was swift to keep expectations in check, sending a cautionary message to his squad: "At the moment we are not better than we were last year."
After taking last season's title by just two points from BK Häcken, those words could spell trouble for the Boras-based club, as any slip in performance could see their advantage eroded, with Malmö FF and AIK also hot on their heels. However, the squad at Lennartsson's disposal looks as strong as last term's on paper, with the notable departure of midfielder Oscar Hiljemark to PSV Eindhoven negated by the arrival of equally talented forward Mohamed Bangura on loan from Celtic FC.
The Sierra Leonean is already well adapted to Swedish football after spells at IFK Värnamo and AIK, while influential captain and evergreen Swedish international Anders Svensson will still be pulling the midfield strings, with the attack-minded Stefan Ishizaki also likely to provide his usual goals and assists.
With so many of Lennartsson's colleagues tipping his side to hold onto their crown, is the coach's humble statement just a smoke screen? Not necessarily. The impressive-looking squad have barely been able to train as a unit all winter, with injury hampering preparations. "Honestly, things are not looking good on the injury front," said Lennartsson at the traditional Allsvenskan media meet earlier this week.
"We have four central defenders injured at the moment. Plus, Bangura is injured, Ishizaki has only played one half, [Niklas] Hult has not started playing yet and [Daniel] Mobaeck got injured in our most recent match."
The coach explained he is only trying to tell it like it is, and that he regards Elfsborg as being "a few weeks behind schedule". The team's short-lived Swedish Cup campaign proved testimony to that as Elfsborg failed to make the quarter-finals, though with AIK and Malmö also missing out, it is difficult to gauge their progress against their rivals'.
Things should pick up as their injured players return to the playing squad, yet will that be soon enough or will the fabled jinx on Swedish champions strike again? No club has managed to defend the league title since Djurgårdens IF's back-to-back successes in 2002 and 2003.
"We know it is difficult to defend a Swedish league title," acknowledged Lennartsson. Of the eight coaches who did not tip Elfsborg to win, three went for AIK, two chose Malmö and IFK Göteborg respectively, while one singled out last year's runners-up Häcken. Come Sunday it will be all to play for once again in one of Europe's most open leagues.