Defending champions surge to top of power ranking
As we look forward to the resumption of the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase on 1 November, a number of ehfCL.com journalists have shared their opinion on the teams which have impressed them most so far this season.
All but one agreed on top spot, while there was plenty of contention for the remaining places. Here are the 10 teams which made the cut.
10. HBC Nantes
Their draw against Rhein-Neckar Löwen, alongside wins over Kristianstad and Szeged, is a solid return for the French side’s first appearance in Group A.
“Fifth place in the group is not too bad, especially considering some important players were missing in key matches.
“The next set of matches, including games against Plock and Zagreb, will tell what “Le H” can expect from this campaign,” says French correspondent Kevin Domas.
9. HC Meshkov Brest
Brest made an immediate impact on this season’s competition with a 28:25 opening round win against 2016 champions Kielce.
That was followed by a pair of defeats, but the three more points picked up away from home (a win at Aalborg and draw at Celje) in the previous two rounds have left them fourth in Group B.
Summer signings Petar Djordjic and Konstantin Igropulo are complementing playmaker Dzimitry Nikulenkau well in the back court, which is doing plenty of damage in arguably the competition’s toughest group.
8. Montpellier HB
They are only team from Groups C and D to enter the top 10 and they are well worth their place. Last season’s surprise quarter-finalists look set for another run into the knockout rounds as they have stormed past their Group D rivals and are the only team with a 100% record so far.
With a five-point lead over the chasing pack in third and fourth place, it will take something special to deny Montpellier a place in the knockout matches and they are a team nobody in Groups A or B would look forward to facing in the Last 16.
7. MOL-Pick Szeged
Szeged’s opening day defeat to Nantes was an uninspiring start, but things have looked up for them since then with a four-game unbeaten run seeing them share third spot in Group A with Barcelona.
Zsolt Balogh leads an attacking force which is spreading out the goals nicely and look dangerous from every position, exemplified by 10 players finding the back of the net in the 26:26 draw with Vardar.
Tests against Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Barcelona will give us a better indication of what Juan Carlos Pastor’s men are made of, but that shared point with Vardar proves they can mix it with the very best clubs on a good day.
6. Rhein-Neckar Löwen
Not many complaints can be aimed towards the German champions this season as they remain unbeaten after five rounds. Only draws with Barcelona and Nantes deny them top spot in Group A.
Playmaker Andy Schmid is in splendid form once again this season, while young Swedish wing Jerry Tollbring is fitting in well following his summer move from Kristianstad.
Löwen hold the best goal difference in the competition so far and will be full of confidence going into their double-header with Vardar in Rounds 7 and 8, a battle for supremacy in the group.
5. SG Flensburg-Handewitt
After their narrow loss away to former coach Ljubomir Vranjes and Veszprém, Flensburg’s 33:29 win over PSG saw them reach a level not many expected of them this season.
Two draws followed, away to Kielce and Kiel, which were unspectacular performances but showed the northern German side can grind out a result when needed, an invaluable characteristic in this competition.
4. FC Barcelona Lassa
A 27:24 loss at Vardar in Round 5 was a flattering scoreline for Barcelona as they were never really in contention for a result in a match which will have dented their confidence.
However, recent news of Aron Palmarsson’s transfer from Veszprém is a massive boost for the Catalan club. The Icelandic superstar will be available for their next match at home to Zagreb and Björn Pazen has made the bold claim that “this signing will see them make it to the top of the next power ranking.”
3. Paris Saint-Germain Handball
The star-studded Parisian outfit have yet to hit top gear, but they have done enough to earn four wins from five outings and are well-positioned in second place in Group B.
Summer signing Sander Sagosen has been given plenty of court time to fit into the team and has repaid the trust in him with 29 goals so far. Round 7’s Match of the Week against Veszprém is a testy encounter which will provide a true indication of where these two pre-season favourites stand.
2. Telekom Veszprém HC
Considering their tough schedule at the beginning of this season and the plethora of changes over the summer, Hungarian correspondent Bence Mártha considers Veszprem “a surprise” inclusion in second place.
Coach Ljubomir Vranjes has made an immediate impact on the squad and the absence of Aron Palmarsson has had no negative effect on their performances. On the contrary, Mate Lekai has well and truly stepped up to the plate with 35 goals so far and an ‘EHF Player of September’ award to go with it.
Based on early season form, Vardar look like serious contenders to end the infamous “curse of the champions” and become the first VELUX EHF Champions League winners to return to Cologne the following season.
With arguably the best defence in the competition, the Skopje-based squad have made up for the loss of Alex Dujshebaev with aplomb and their impressive victory over Barcelona earned them not only top spot in Group A, but top spot in the power ranking.
Author: Chris O'Reilly