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18.09.2016, 23:29◄ last page     

VELUX EHF Champions League countdown – 3 days to go: HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb (CRO). Igor Vori is back in town and back where it all began for him as the Zagreb-based side look to do better than last season and stamp their name on a FINAL4 spot

Croatian record holders eager to take final step to Cologne

26 straight years Croatian champions, and for the 22nd time part of the EHF Champions League – HC PPD Zagreb maintain their records in both rankings. After clinching the berth for the VELUX EHF Champions League quarter-finals twice in 2015 and 2016, now the four-time finalists have the dream of making it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne. Their historic elimination of Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the previous season boosts the hopes of the team of legendary coach Veselin Vujovic.

Another reason for the huge confidence is the homecoming of one of the most successful Croatian handball players ever: Igor Vori. And he is back in Zagreb, where it all started. The World and Olympic champion and 2013 VELUX EHF Champions League winner returns home from Paris, while back court ace Luka Stepancic has gone in the opposite direction to the French capital.

Like Stepancic, another top talent of the Croatian record champions has made it to a top club abroad, goalkeeper Filip Ivic signed for the Champions League winners Kielce; he was replaced by Slovenian international Matevz Skok. His fellow countryman Darko Cingesar (Maribor) is another top PPD signing.

But the preparation for the new season was anything but easy for the Croats. Five players - Cingesar, David Miklavcic, Skok, Zlatko Horvat and Ivan Stevanovic – as well as coach Veselin Vujovic (as Slovenian NT coach) missed out on most of the pre-season due to the Olympic Games. In addition, Zagreb suffer from two long-term injuries, left back Domagoj Pavlovic (shoulder injury) is ruled out until the end of the year, while PPD expects right back Luka Sebetic (elbow injury) to be back in November.

But despite those problems, the hopes are high: “We want to qualify for the Last 16, and to make it among the top eight teams again. That would be a fantastic result for us; to qualify for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 would be a dream come true,” says club director Ante Ancic, adding: “We are eager to repeat our success from the two previous seasons. Once in the quarter-finals we will of course do our best to progress to Cologne.”

In the group phase, Zagreb will face some familiar faces: “We will compete in a very tough group alongside defending champions Vive Tauron Kielce, Bundesliga champions Rhein-Neckar Löwen, the mighty Vardar; we are really looking forward to it,” says Ancic. He praised the top flight of European club competitions: “I believe that the Champions League currently is in its golden days and that the new playing system is absolutely fantastic for our team. We have 14 matches against such illustrious clubs and by facing them our young team can only get better and better.”

Experienced team captain Zlatko Horvat shares these big dreams: “We hope to repeat last year’s result. We have some new players and I believe that our team is even better when compared to last season. Once in the quarter-finals, we will give everything we have to try to make that final step and to reach Cologne. It is a difficult task but I believe in my team.”

Horvat does not consider any group phase opponent as a weak team, in contrast: “I am looking forward to playing again against Löwen, Vardar and Celje. Also Kielce are coming to Zagreb and it would be a big deal for us if we manage to outplay them on home court. I believe our group is very tough and every team is capable of beating all the rest. I am sure that this will be the most interesting season in history.”

HC Prvo Plinarsko Drustvo Zagreb (CRO)

Qualification for the 2016/17 VELUX EHF Champions League season: Croatian champions

Newcomers: Darko Cingesar (Maribor), David Miklavcic (HC Tremblay), Matevz Skok (HC Lübbecke), Josip Eres (HC Izvidac Ljubuski), Igor Vori (PSG), Lovro Jotic (HC Dubrava)

Left the club: Filip Ivic (Vive Tauron Kielce), Luka Stepancic (PSG), Antonijo Kovacevic (HC Dubrava), Lovro Mihic (Orlen Wisla Plock), Stanko Sabljic (destination unknown)

Coach: Veselin Vujovic (since October 2014)

Team captain: Zlatko Horvat

Opponents in the group phase: Löwen, Kielce, Vardar, Brest, Celje, Szeged and Kristianstad in Group B

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2016/17 season): 22
Final (4): 1994/95, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99
Semi-final (1): 1999/00
Quarter-final (7): 2000/01, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2008/09, 2011/12, 2014/15, 2015/16
Last 16 (3): 2005/06, 2009/10, 2010/11
Main Round (1): 2007/08
Group Phase (5): 1993/94, 2004/05, 2006/07, 2012/13, 2013/14

Other EC records:

EHF Cup:
Finalist: 2004/05
Cup Winners Cup:
Semi-finalist : 2006/07

Croatian champion: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Croatian Cup winner: 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

Winner of the SEHA League 2013

TEXT: Björn Pazen / bc

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