OTP Bank Liga: Fradi and Vidi set to contest the 2018 title
Ferencváros start 2018 as OTP Bank league leaders after a successful autumn season. Second-placed Videoton had looked set to end the year as top dogs but poor form in the final few games saw them overhauled by Thomas Doll's men who now have 41 points. Vidi are three behind with third-placed Debrecen a further seven points back. We look back on the first half of the 2017/2018 campaign.
After 19 rounds the league is almost two-thirds of the way through and already it seems to be a two-horse race for the title between Ferencváros and Videoton, the former holding a three-point lead over the latter with Debrecen a significant ten points away from the summit. Further down the table, it seems as if the battle to avoid relegation will go right to the final day this time with a clutch of clubs still in danger of the drop, the January transfer window a potentially crucial factor in how strong clubs will look as they approach the springtime.
At Christmas 2015, Ferencváros had held a huge points advantage at the top of NB I but last year they had trailed the trio of Videoton, Honvéd and Vasas by four points. This time, it looked to be turning out to be a similarly dismal situation for Fradi after seven games in which they only defeated Mezőkövesd and Haladás at home. From the start of September though, Doll's charges only dropped four points from their next 12 matches, an improvement in form and results which can be attributed to key performances from three incoming transfers, Joseph Paintsil of Ghana, Stefan Spirovski of Macedonia and Miha Blažić of Slovenia, who immediately became first-team regulars. The same can be said of Brazilian Pedro who made his debut slightly earlier in August. Defender Kenneth Otigba also
proved to be a shrewd signing, only missing matches in the event of injury, as was Fernando Gorriaran who took part in every league match in the autumn. Indeed, more than half of the team which finished the autumn had arrived during the most recent summer transfer window. Of those who'd been at the Groupama Aréna longer, winger Roland Varga's displays stood out, his 13 goals from 17 matches, all but one of which came before 30th September, proving enough to top the league's goalscoring charts.
Fradi's nearest challengers Videoton also suffered a slow start, winning only once in their first three matches, but then took all 15 points on offer from the next five fixtures and are now unbeaten since 16th September. Their defeat to Vasas proved to be a turning point in their season and after stalemate against Ferencváros there followed three straight wins including an impressive 5-2 victory over Debrecen. Having said this, two losses in their final two matches of the year show there is plenty of work to be done if Vidi are to overhaul the league leaders. Their 38 points is four more than they had last year and eight more than they'd collected in autumn 2015, a feat in part down to an unbeaten record at home which is a claim Ferencváros can also make. Also worthy of note is that Marko Nikolic's team have collected the most amount of yellow and red cards.
Another team to start poorly was Debrecen, coached again by András Herczeg, who opened the campaign with two losses and still remained winless after five fixtures. It seemed as if 'Loki' would encounter another season like the last when a podium place seemed a pipedream, but Herczeg - in his second stint with the club having reached the UEFA Champions' League group stages with the Easter Hungarian club back in 2009 - quickly reorganised the squad and gave important roles to Ádám Bódi, Kevin Varga, Haris Tabakovic and Tamás Takács which helped the club win five in a row and go ten matches unbeaten. The end of the year was a little less successful but overall anyone from the Nagyerdő forest where their stadium is located would have settled for third place in the league after finishing the previous two calendar years in 10th (2016) and 7th (2015).
Champions Budapest Honvéd are the best placed of all the NB I teams to have changed their head coaches since the summer but they still haven't matched up to last season's achievements. Dutchman Erik van der Meer was in charge for the autumn but despite his team defeating Paks in the 19th round of fixtures he was still handed his P45, former Honvéd and Debrecen coach Attila Supka taking the reins with the spring season in mind. In attack, David Lanzafame and Márton Eppel still fired, often both scoring in games, but at the back things were going as well and in the end only four teams conceded more goals than the club from Kispest. Honvéd were undefeated for their first six fixtures but won only once thereafter and before that final match of the year against Paks they'd lost three in succession. Their relative woes primarily stem from their home form which saw them in every match last spring but which in autumn has seen them gain only 16 points. Overall, their points tally of 28 for the second half of this year is more than in 2015 (24) but fewer than last year (34).
Újpest also had a strange record as the home team, only the top two teams conceding fewer goals as hosts but their two wins only proving superior to Mezőkövesd's record in front of their own fans. Nebojsa Vignevic's team had to settle for as many as six draws at their Megyeri ut stadium and had to entertain their opponents five times in behind-closed-doors fixtures. The lilac-and-whites had 31 points by the end of December 2015 and 27 last year, their decline clearly continuing this time given that they hold only 26 points. Having said this, they have finished the autumn in the top half of the table on all three occasions.
One team to have struggled in recent years but have yet maintained their place in the top tier is Diósgyőr but they started this season superbly, Diego Vela playing a key role in their collection of seven points from the first three games. Thereafter though, they only defeated Mezőkövesd until the ninth round when their record suddenly became incredibly inconsistent month to month. They lost all four matches in September but won all three of October's fixtures before again falling into a spiral, failing to win a point from November's three league matches. The two December tests resulted in a draw and win though. It's worth knowing that DVTK had garnered 20 points after 19 games in 2015 and 21 points by December 2016, so this season's tally of 25 so far should be applauded. Only Paks have fewer foreign players than Diósgyőr.
While we're on the subject of Paks we should state that the team from the town of Hungary's nuclear reactor is difficult to overcome at home but only Újpest have drawn more matches as hosts so far this campaign. Aurél Csertői's troops went unbeaten between 6th September and 28th October and only failed to score once in their first 15 matches but this changed in the last four rounds when they only scored in one of their final four autumn fixtures.
Of the two promoted teams, Puskás Akadémia have performed the better, finishing in eighth position. Attila Pintér's team had a purple patch between 12th August and 16th September when they went unbeaten, drawing one match and then winning four in a row. Before beating Újpest in their final game of 2017 though, they'd only won once since the league's ninth round of fixtures. The club from Felcsút has used 27 players this half-season, a number only exceeeded by Haladás.
Capital-city club Vasas had an unexpectedly positive season last time round, reaching the Hungarian Cup final and qualifying for the UEFA Europa League courtesy of a third-place league finish, but this autumn crusade was disappointing in comparison to their most recent effort, 13 points the difference between the two series of results. They lost five times at home and five times away, and failed to win at all in the last seven matches.
In Szombathely, Haladás had started the season with Géza Mészöly before Bálint Pacsi took over in a caretaker capacity and Slovak coach Michal Hipp guided the team in the final part of the year. There was a period of 11 games when only one victory was gained including seven winless matches before they returned to their newly-refurbished Rohonci út stadium, but they emerged triumphant in their final three fixtures and were in fact the only team to beat both Ferencváros and Videoton so far this term.
The league's only debutant team, having never appeared in the top flight before, was Balmazújváros and they lie in the relegation zone at Christmas despite a marked improvement in their last five results which has seen them go unbeaten, the best record of all the league combatants over the same period. Out of their 25 players to have appeared this season, 11 are from abroad.
Mezőkövesd prop up the table going into 2018 but it all looked so positive for them after the first two rounds in which they won both fixtures to stand tall on six points. They wouldn't win again though until the 17th round and despite prevailing over Debrecen in third and Honvéd in fourth - both away from home - they will require a significant upturn in fortunes in order to stay in the top flight over the coming year.