Where they stand now and where they go next
With Round 7 completed, we are halfway through in Groups A and B of the VELUX EHF Champions League.
A lot can still happen but it is possible to make some predictions.
In Groups C and D the decisive battles are about to be fought, though one team have already secured their spot in the play-offs.
Group A – Can HC Vardar be stopped?
Reigning champions HC Vardar have only lost one point in the first seven games in Group A and have a two-point lead at the top after beating HC PPD Zagreb 29:23.
They are the team to beat this season and have positioned themselves well to qualify directly for the quarter-finals.
But their next match will be crucial when Rhein-Neckar Löwen, the other undefeated team in the group, come to Skopje. A win for Vardar will set the tone, but a victory for the Mannheim Lions will widely open up the battle again.
A place in the first knockout round should be just a formality for FC Barcelona Lassa, HBC Nantes and MOL-Pick Szeged, alongside either Vardar or Löwen.
But to answer the main question: you need to beat Arpad Sterbik if you are going to stop Vardar.
The fight is only just beginning at the other end of the table, however.
IFK Kristianstad, HC PPD Zagreb and Orlen Wisla Plock are likely to be fighting for the sixth and final place to go to the first knockout round.
The Swedish champions’ tight victory over Wisla Plock over the weekend (25:24) made them the only team out of the three with a win in the bag so far. However, the teams will meet again in the next round which could either open the battle again or put Kristianstad in the driving seat.
Group B – Where everything can happen
Leading up to the second half of the group stage, Group B can be divided into three parts. Three teams fight for the direct spot in the quarter-finals, four teams fight for three spots in the knockout round, while Aalborg Håndbold has their back against the wall.
Paris Saint-Germain Handball sent a strong message with a 33:28 win in the Match of the Week against Telekom Veszprém HC but they are just inches ahead of the Hungarian champions.
The table can turn again in the next round when the rematch takes place in Hungary.
The third team in the battle for the top spot are SG Flensburg-Handewitt, only two points behind PSG.
Flensburg, however, have crucial weeks coming up.
Only a single point divides PGE Vive Kielce, HC Meshkov Brest, RK Celje and THW Kiel between fourth and seventh place, and Flensburg’s next four games are against all of them.
So a misstep could see the German side fight for a spot to the first knockout stage, while a good run will make them contenders for the top spot.
Kiel’s loss against Celje at home, 29:26, put them currently out of the qualifying spots and Alfred Gislason’s side have everything to prove if they are not going to be left behind.
Meanwhile, the Slovenian side had a reason to celebrate:
Group C – Four teams in the fight for two tickets
The battle is tight in Group C. With only three rounds left, Skjern Håndbold, Rk Gorenje Velenje, CB Ademar León and Elverum Håndball are fighting for the two top spots to reach the play-offs and keep the dream alive of going to the knockout phase.
Danish side Skjern are the team to beat in that battle with a two-point lead at the top. What speaks in their favour is their outstanding goal difference of +44, better than anyone else’s. They have clearly found a rhythm that works with experienced Anders Eggert leading the way.
However, Skjern will still be up against each of their three rivals. A small mistake could become costly and turn their dream into a nightmare.
Velenje, León and Elverum are even on points and have everything to win.
Also, Swiss side Kadetten Schaffhausen have still a mathematical chance to go to the play-offs but they will need other teams to slip up.
Meanwhile, Dinamo Bucuresti are out of the battle but could still be a thorn in the eyes of the others.
Group D – Who will follow Montpellier?
Montpellier HB have been outstanding throughout the group stage this season. The win against HC Metalurg in the last round (27:21) was their seventh in a row, which secured them their spot in the play-offs.
There are four teams in the battle for the other ticket. Ukrainian side HC Motor Zaporozhye are in the best position by far with nine points, Sporting CP have six while Besiktas Mogaz HT and HC Metalurg each have five.
Motor drew against bottom side Chekhovskie Medvedi in the last round (30:30), which showed the other teams in the battle that their faith has not sealed.
Also, Motor - like Besiktas - have still to play Montpellier again. Will the French side loosen up with their spot in the play-offs already guaranteed?
But seven wins in seven games, wouldn’t you want to continue?
Author: Andri Yrkill Valsson / ew