|23.09.2016, 14:30||◄ last page|
GROUP B PREVIEW: Vive Tauron Kielce, will launch their bid to retain European club handball’s most coveted title against Meshkov Brest, while HC PPD Zagreb visit RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko in the opening round.
KIELCE START TITLE DEFENCE AS BALKAN RIVALS CLASH
The new season in the VELUX EHF Champions League is underway and first-round clashes in Group B offer several exciting encounters, as some of the old rivals will lock horns. Reigning champions, KS Vive Tauron Kielce, begin their title defence at Meshkov Brest, who are aiming to reach the knockout round for the first time.
The clash between Balkan rivals RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko and HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb will also be a focus of attention, as will Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s visit to MOL-Pick Szeged.
The German champions look to improve on last season’s result, when they were eliminated from the tournament by Zagreb in the Last 16.
Finally, Macedonian powerhouse, HC Vardar, face a tricky trip to Sweden’s IFK Kristianstad, who produced several eye-catching performances in their maiden appearance on the big stage last year.
Kielce, who took the competition by storm last season with a pair of impressive wins over PSG in the semi-final and then defeating Veszprem in a rip-roaring final in Cologne, will be eager to get their campaign back on track immediately.
Several key players have left Kielce, but they are by no means a weaker side, as three of their four new signings are household names in European club handball. Currently injured Dean Bombac (MOL-Pick Szeged) and Filip Ivic (Zagreb) require no special introduction, while Serbian Darko Djukic joined the squad after an outstanding season at Besiktas Mogaz HT.
Kielce also signed Patryk Walczak from local rivals, Pogon Szczecin, to compensate for the departure of Croatian trio Denis Buntic, Ivan Cupic and Marin Sego. In addition, veteran Grzegorz Tkaczyk retired.
Meshkov have proven they can be a tough nut to crack on home court, even against the most herald opposition; hence Kielce cannot afford to take the victory for granted.
With Kielce, Rhein-Neckar Löwen, Vardar and MOL-Pick Szeged as the clear favourites to claim the section’s top four spots, Zagreb and Celje will be among the final teams battling for the remaining two berths, guaranteeing their knockout stage involvement. Therefore, both teams will have to fight for every point, as it could be vital in achieving their objective.
The Croatian title holders hold the edge in their past 17 meetings, having won nine games, lost six and drew one. Last season, the match-ups between these two clubs treated fans to a pair of dramatic games, with Zagreb coming out on top both times (21:20 away and 24:23 at home).
With a new perspective, the team from Zagreb views the game a good test of their credentials to emulate or surpass last season’s achievement of reaching the competition’s quarter-finals.
Two key players have left the club for wealthier rivals, as goalkeeper Filip Ivic joined Kielce, while right back Luka Stepancic became the latest trade in a line of high-profile performers seeking European glory at Paris Saint-Germain Handball.
Last year, the squad had a dream debut with a 33:26 win over KIF Kolding København. Similarly, that is the kind of performance the team will be looking for when they host Vardar in what should be a fantastic opener to the new season.
The two sides were also pitted against each other in last year’s group stage, with Vardar coming out on top in the corresponding fixture in Sweden (30:25) before they overpowered Kristianstad 38:36 at home in a fast-paced, high-scoring encounter.
Once again, the Macedonian side will start out as the favourites, despite having lost several star contributors in Matjaz Brumen and Alem Toskic. Notably, Russian left back Sergei Gorbok, will be missed, as he joined MOL-Pick Szeged following two excellent seasons with the Macedonian giants. On the other hand there are high expectations from another addition to the Spanish contingent in Skopje - Joan Canellas.
Kristianstad will continue to rely on their dynamic roster; capable of converting fast breaks and carving out space for left winger, Jerry Tollbring, who shone with a total of 70 goals in 14 games last season. Hungary’s Iranian-born left back Iman Jamali, who was the club’s top scorer with 74 goals, left to group rivals from Brest in the summer.
The Rhein-Neckar Löwen celebrated their club’s biggest success last season when they won their first-ever Bundesliga title. Years of near misses and consistenly placing second-best to the likes of THW Kiel, who have also won three titles in Europe’s premier club competition, were finally put to rest.
However, the Löwen suffered a shocking and heart-breaking defeat by Vardar in the continent’s elite club tournament. Thus, they are still chasing the elusive Holy Grail on the largest stage, in which both Kiel and Flensburg have captured in recent history.
Szeged, on the other hand, are still trying to catch up with their bitter Hungarian foes, Veszprem, who are repetitively dominant at home and successfully reached last season VELUX EHF Champions League Final.
Both sides will head into the clash with varied revamped rosters, as the Mannheim Lions lost their iconic winger, Uwe Gensheimer to PSG and Szeged’s Slovenian sharpshooter, Dean Bombac, moved to Kielce. There is little or nothing standing in between the two teams and therefore, the contest could go down to the wire, as it so often has in the past.
Having shared the spoils in their two clashes last season, the rivals each have three wins in their previous six meetings. Most recently, the Löwen enjoyed a comfortable win at home (30:25) before they were soundly beaten away (30:24) in the group stage.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic/tm