Plain sailing expected for big guns and Szeged visit Zagreb
There were no surprises in the opening round of Group B as the section’s big guns, namely champions Kielce and Macedonian giants Vardar, celebrated emphatic away wins at Brest and Kristianstad, respecticvely.
Those who clashed with each other, Szeged and RNL, shared the spoils while Celje enjoyed a rare victory against traditional rivals Zagreb.
The second round offers one derby, with Zagreb taking on Szeged in the Croatian capital, whereas the home sides will start as strong favourites in the other three.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO)
Wednesday, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
The German champions clawed out a point in their enthralling opener at MOL-Pick Szeged and will look to register their first win when they take on Slovenia’s RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko, who will be buoyed by a well-deserved home win over Zagreb.
Balanced team effort
Rhein-Neckar Löwen showed plenty of grit and determination to avoid defeat in Hungary, as Andre Schmid lead a balanced team effort in attack with six goals while Patrick Groetzki, Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson and Hendrik Pekeler added five each.
Evergreen Icelander Sigurdsson seemed to have blended in seamlessly after his move from Barcelona, with the 37-year-old winger superbly filling the void created by the departure of fellow winger Uwe Gensheimer to Paris Saint-Germain.
The veteran’s clinical finishing will be exactly what’s required to prevent an upset by a fired-up Celje, who shone against Zagreb and earned two valuable points in the battle for a top-six finish.
Having won seven of their eight previous encounters, Mannheim’s Lions will start as odds-on favourites to beat Celje again although the Slovenian outfit will take some confidence from their last meeting when they beat RNL 31:27 on home court in November 2014.
KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Saturday, 15:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
This is the round’s David vs Goliath clash; Kristianstad were soundly beaten by Vardar 28:23 on home court in the opening round, visit the competition’s defending champions.
Kielce at times made heavy weather of their 29:24 win at Meshkov Brest but easily moved up a gear when they needed to, as Krzysztof Lijewski led a pack of 12 scorers with six goals to his name.
The long scoresheet underlined the depth of Kielce’s roster, which Kristianstad is unlikely to cope with as the holders play on home court in the VELUX EHF Champions League for the first time since they captured their maiden trophy in Europe’s flagship competition.
The two teams met last season, Kristianstad’s first in Europe’s top flight, with Kielce comfortably coming out on top in the corresponding fixture in Poland (35:27) while the match in Sweden ended in a thrilling 35:35 draw.
Tough defence and fast breaks
Kielce’s Spanish line player Julen Aguinagalde was happy with the team’s effort after the win in Brest but also struck a note of caution:
“Every possession was a battle but this is the Champions League and everyone should have expected as much,” he told the club’s website.
“You have to stay focused for the entire 60 minutes and that’s what we did.
“We played tough defence and made our fast breaks count, so we are delighted to have started our title defence on a winning note.”
Kristianstad’s 21-year old prodigy Philip Henningsson enjoyed a fine VELUX EHF Champions League debut, scoring seven goals against Vardar, but is likely to find Kielce’s defence a somewhat tougher nut to crack when the Swedish side gets a stern test of their credentials.
HC Vardar (MKD) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Saturday, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
A flurry of near misses, having been eliminated in the quarter-finals in each of the previous three seasons, is something Vardar will aim to put behind them this term and they got their campaign on the right track with a smooth victory at Kristianstad.
The Macedonian giants have boosted their squad with several big names who are yet to make an impact such as winger Ivan Cupic scored just one goal in Sweden while Spaniard Joan Canellas added three, taking a back seat to his compatriot Alex Dujshebaev led the charge with seven goals.
In fact, it was the backcourt stalwarts who propelled Vardar as Igor Karacic netted five goals and pulled his team’s strings in attack, while Arpad Sterbik was his usual impressive self between the posts.
Balkan handball temple
Matching Kielce in every department for much of the contest in Belarus, Meshkov will hope to repeat that kind of performance in Skopje and hope it will be enough to come away with something against Vardar, whose fans will again throng the iconic Jane Sandanski arena known Europe-wide as the Balkan handball temple.
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Saturday, 20:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
The Croatian giants, who stunned Europe’s premier club competition last season when they knocked out RNL in Round 16, were equally stung this time after losing the regional derby to Celje in the season’s opener.
The setback was only Zagreb’s second defeat in their last eight meetings with Celje and it highlighted a vulnerable defence after the departure of outstanding goalkeeper Filip Ivic to European club champions Kielce.
Ahead of their clash with Szeged, Zagreb will have a suitable dress rehearsal when they visit Bosnians Izvidjac Ljubuski in a SEHA Gazprom regional league match on Tuesday.
Their coach Veselin Vujovic will see the clash as a perfect test for right back Luka Sebetic, who is expected to make a long-awaited return from injury and bolster Zagreb’s attack.
“Sebetic is back after a long-term and serious injury and he needs to play at last one game before we take on Szeged,” Vujovic told the club’s website.
Szeged too will be kicking themselves after missing a great chance to beat RNL on home court in the opening round, having squandered a two-goal lead in the last few minutes and then conceded a buzzer-beating thunderbolt from Kim Ekdahl du Rietz in a 28:28 draw.
But they will be buoyed by a fine performance from their new signing Sergei Gorbok, who led his team with six goals and dictated play in attack.