Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Stale Solbakken: The man out to cause an upset in the Champions League

In December last year, FC Kobenhavn made history by becoming the first Danish club ever to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League, overcoming Group D opponents Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, to seal a well-earned tie against Chelsea in the round of last 16. While the players themselves deserve to take some credit for FCK’s historic run in Europe’s top club competition, the real lynchpin behind the side’s success has undoubtedly been none other than young Norwegian manager Stale Solbakken, who is rapidly earning a reputation as one of the continent’s top up and coming coaches. Solbakken, a former FCK player, who was capped 58 times by his country and even had a brief spell playing in England with Wimbledon, has been in charge of the Danish champions for just over five years now and during that time has quietly gone about building an impressive résumé.

In a well-documented tale, Solbakken’s playing career came to an early end in 2001, when, during a routine training session with Kobenhavn, he collapsed suddenly in the middle of the pitch, having suffered a serious heart attack, and was rushed to hospital after club doctors were unable to restart his heart. Paramedics were fortunately able to revive Solbakken in the ambulance, though only after he had been pronounced clinically dead for almost fourteen minutes. A previously undetected heart defect that had been present since childhood was determined to be the cause and Solbakken, now fitted with a pacemaker, was forced to bring a premature end to his football career at the age of 33. Not to be deterred by what others would regard as a serious handicap however, Solbakken turned his hand to the world of football management and, after a brief spell assisting Nils Johan Semb with the Norwegian national side, was given his first head coaching job with lower league side HamKam, in 2003, whom he had appeared over 100 times for as a player between 1989 and 1994. Success came immediately for Solbakken, as his side won promotion to the top-tier Tippeligaen in his first season in charge and then finished 5th in their first season back in the top flight since 1995, a feat which earned Solbakken the league’s manager of the year award. This success certainly did not go unnoticed and in December 2005 Solbakken’s former club Kobenhavn chose him as the man to replace outgoing manager Hans Backe, a move which has reaped its rewards ever since. During his five years at the helm, Solbakken has guided his team to four league titles and a Danish Cup win, as well as their first ever Champions League group appearance in 2006, where, in a tough draw that pitted them against the likes of Manchester United, Celtic, and Benfica, his side managed to string together a series of impressive displays, that included a 1-0 win away at Old Trafford. Though FCK finished bottom of their group that year, success in the Champions League was not to be far off for Solbakken’s side and this year, defying all the odds, Kobenhavn pulled off a number of remarkable performances in the group stages, including a 1-1 at home to Guardiola’s Barcelona, to join such illustrious names as Real Madrid and AC Milan in the competition’s knockout stage.

At the end of that impressive 1-1 draw against the Spanish champions back in November, Solbakken and Guardiola were involved in a heated exchange that largely personified the way the match had played out, Kobenhavn battling Barcelona with one of the most physical displays that Messi and co. had faced in recent memory. Indeed, in the wake of the match, Guardiola himself conceded that during his time as Barca manager, he had never faced a team as intense and physical as Kobenhavn, two attributes that largely embody the high-energy game that Solbakken has his team play.

Having dominated the Danish Superliga throughout his tenure, Solbakken has built a well-balanced and stable squad, one as lethal in attack as it is rock-solid defensively, capable of overpowering lesser opponents, as well as shutting out clear superior opposition. Through 19 games of the league this season, Kobenhavn have scored a remarkable 50 league goals and conceded just 15, with the team sitting 18pts ahead of their nearest rivals and, barring a shocking collapse, all but certain to seal Solbakken his 5th league title with the club. Also an intelligent and well-spoken individual, Solbakken would surely be a prime candidate for many of Europe’s top club jobs this summer were it not for the fact he has already agreed to take charge of the Norwegian national side upon the retirement of Egil Olsen, at the culmination of Norway’s qualification campaign for Euro 2012, a job which he has declared a lifelong ambition. While one has to applaud Solbakken for showing such loyalty and dedication to his country, there is also a distinct feeling of disappointment that such a talented and promising young manager is seemingly set to miss the opportunity to prove themselves in one of Europe’s top leagues, in favour of nothing more than a glorified ‘part-time’ job. Certainly, club football’s loss will be Norway’s gain, and the country can look forward to their 2014 World Cup campaign with genuine optimism. It may be a little while before we see Solbakken test himself at a top European side but, at just 42 years of age, he still has plenty of time to do so.

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