|23.03.2017, 14:50||◄ last page|
LAST 16 PREVIEW: HC PPD Zagreb and Telekom Veszprem know each other very well and are expected to produce some fascinating action over two legs in their battle for a quarter-final berth.
Zagreb out to produce another stunning upset
The Croatian champions will be under no pressure and have everything to play for when they lock horns with familiar rivals Telekom Veszprém in their two-leg Last 16 clash.
The Hungarian side are strong favourites to go through but will be wary of an opponent capable of punching far above their weight.
Written off after a poor start in which they lost the opening four group phase matches, Zagreb sprung back to life with a 28:27 home victory over the section’s eventual winners HC Vardar.
The performance rekindled instant memories of last season’s sensational win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the round of 16 and Zagreb will need to reproduce that kind of grit and determination if they are to stand any chance of emulating their 2016 success.
The perennial Croatian title holders will be devoid of any pressure after defying the odds to sneak into the knockout stages on the basis of having a better head-to-head record than RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko on away goals.
The two teams finished level on nine points, tied on one win each and deadlocked on a 51:51 goal difference over their two group stage games.
What swung the balance Zagreb’s way was scoring more away goals in their defeat at Celje (30:28) than the Slovenian outfit did in the reverse fixture when they were beaten by Zagreb (23:21), while the Croatian outfit were also fortunate to see Vardar beat IFK Kristianstad 32:29 in the group’s last game, as the Swedish side would have gone through with a draw.
In contrast, Veszprem’s qualification was never in doubt and they expectably came through as the third-placed team from Group A, behind Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain Handball, who were always the odds-on favourites to finish as the section’s top two.
Led by Serbian left back Momir Ilic, the competition’s third-highest top scorer with 77 goals, Veszprem had too much firepower for all the rivals that finished behind them, having won eight and drawn two games against the five teams they topped in the standings.
However, the chinks in their armour were exposed in the four defeats against Barcelona and PSG, suggesting that they will have to raise their game if they are to emulate last season’s runners-up finish.
There will be few or no secrets when the two teams clash as they are also rivals in the regional SEHA League – having both qualified for the competition’s final four to be held in Brest next month.
Zagreb did not enjoy a perfect dress rehearsal for the clash with Veszprem as they suffered a 31:25 home defeat by Meshkov in the SEHA League regular season last weekend, with the Croatian side’s normally ironclad defence conceding an avalanche of goals.
A balanced attack, another trademark feature for Zagreb in the VELUX EHF Champions League group phase, saw David Miklavcic score six goals, captain Zlatko Horvat added four while Stipe Mandalinic, Darko Cingesar and Dobrivoje Markovic netted three each.
The head-to-head record between the two teams suggests in no uncertain terms that Veszprem represent the Goliath in this two-leg clash, having won nine out of 10 games against Zagreb in both competitions.
The Hungarian side won all four Champions League games between the two sides while Zagreb’s solitary success in six SEHA League encounters with Veszprem was a 27:23 win over their more heralded opponents last December.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br