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22.09.2016, 17:30◄ last page     

FEATURE: After five straight seasons in the EHF Cup, HBC Nantes make their big debut in the VELUX EHF Champions League. Their aim? Qualifying for the Last 16.

Nantes want to survive in Champions League

If reaching the EHF Cup final twice in four years was a big enough statement to put the city on the European handball map, joining the 28 best teams of the continent is something very different for HBC Nantes.

“When we first played the EHF Cup, I talked about climbing a step,” says coach Thierry Anti, who starts his eighth season on the bench.

“I think that this season will see us climb another one. But this hasn’t been an overnight success. We have slowly made our way, building our project to finally join the best competition there is.”

The EHF Cup Finals the club hosted in May were not only a proof that the team had potential on the court, but also that the club as a whole was ready for organising big events on a regular basis.

And the time has come to prove it with the whole of Europe watching.

New signings this summer

To do so, on court, Anti has chosen to trust players with experience. Seven new names have joined the team.

The most well-known face is certainly Dominik Klein, who used to wear the THW Kiel jersey before. With his three Champions League wins, he will certainly bring something very useful to Nantes as he knows how to win important games.

Also Eduardo Gurbindo (from FC Barcelona), Cyril Dumoulin (Toulouse) and Arnaud Siffert (Montpellier) have come to Nantes.

“We purposefully chose to sign players who had played in the Champions League before,” Anti explains.

“But that was not the only condition, of course. All of them fit to our project, both on and off the court. And the preparation, with eight wins in as many games, matched our expectations.”

The impression was somewhat tarnished by the lost final of the Champions Trophy, where Nantes got beaten by 11 goals by Paris Saint-Germain.

But new goalkeeper Siffert doesn’t want to draw conclusions too hastily.

“It’s hard to say what we’re up to after games like those, but I think it was a good reminder that there's still a lot of things to work on,” Siffert says. “But we will, because we want to survive in every competition we play this season.”

Aiming for Last 16 spot

But what does ‘survive’ mean? If you ask captain Rock Feliho, his answer is plain and simple: “We want to reach the Last 16 phase. It wouldn’t be a miracle, but still a massive achievement from us.”

“We deserve to be there in my opinion, and we want to prove it,” Feliho says. “We’re not taking part for the sake of it, that’s not our style.”

To reach the Last 16 Nantes will have to finish among the best two teams of their group, where they will meet Champions League regulars HC Motor Zaporozhye and clubs who played the EHF Cup last season as well, like Team Tvis Holstebro and Dinamo Bucuresti.

Coach Anti knows that finishing that high in the group is not a certainty.

“This is our first time playing it, and somehow we’re diving into the unknown. The Champions League is a different competition, which will make our schedule a lot harder, with many games before Christmas,” Anti says.

“We’ll try to show our best and to be as ambitious as we can be on this long road that will, hopefully, lead us to the Last 16.”

Alberto Entrerrios now co-trainer

After four seasons playing, Alberto Entrerrios has now become the co-trainer of the team, stepping in the shoes of Greg Cojean, who’s back at the handball school with the young teams.

“It was a decision we mutually agreed on,” Anti says. “To have this kind of experience on the bench will be precious, even though Alberto is still very quiet.”

With his three Champions League titles won with Ciudad Real, no doubt that Entrerrios’ words will be listened to by his now ex-teammates.

With all this experience and quality both on the court and on the bench, Nantes look like a team ready to play a role in this Champions League.

TEXT: Kevin Domas / ew

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