Champions face Hungarian test; Slovenia hosts Balkan derby
Champions Kielce and perennial VELUX EHF Champions League contenders Vardar aim to extend their perfect starts at difficult away outings, while Meshkov Brest are looking at an uphill task of chalking up their first points of the season at home to Rhein-Neckar Löwen. IFK Kristianstad and HC PPD Zagreb clash in a battle of two teams who are yet to earn a point in Europe’s premier club competition this season.
• Zagreb under pressure after two straight defeats
• RNL headed for tough visit to Meshkov
• Big names face former clubs as Szeged host champions Kielce
• Vardar travel to fired-up Celje in Balkan derby
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs HC PPD Zagreb (CRO)
Saturday, 18:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Both sides will see winning this match as a must, having lost their opening two games in what is shaping up to be a fiercely competitive section.
Zagreb’s defeat at Celje (30:28) came as a bit of surprise as the Croatian champions have a superior record against their Slovenian neighbours, but it was the 26:24 home setback against Szeged that really rocked coach Veselin Vujovic’s outfit.
It left Zagreb scrambling for their first points of the season and Vujovic, who will take a weakened roster to Sweden as the injured David Miklavcic and Tonci Valcic have joined a long list of casualties, conceded his side was under pressure.
“We haven’t made a good start to our Champions League season, but being decimated by injuries will be no excuse against IFK because whoever is fit has to soldier on,” Vujovic told reporters in the Croatian capital.
“It is going to be a tough match against a good team who lost their opening two games to Kielce and Vardar, the best two teams in our section. We have to thwart their fast breaks and find a way to break down their 6-0 defence.”
Back Luka Sebetic echoed Vujovic’s views and underscored Zagreb would not be at full strength in Sweden.
“They are a side which thrives in a quick transition from defence to attack and shoot with plenty of confidence,” he said.
“The trouble is that we have a lot of walking wounded. I am not fully fit and Miklavcic is injured, but we just have to play through the pain and win this game.”
IFK will have something to say about that, though, hoping that their rising 21-year old prodigy, Philip Henningsson, can carry his good form into the contest after scoring 13 goals in the opening two games.
Meshkov Brest (BLR) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)
Saturday, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Another tough outing for Meshkov, who have had to put up with a torrid fixture list in the opening three games of their VELUX EHF Champions League campaign this season.
The side from Brest suffered a 29:24 home defeat to defending champions Kielce in the opening round before they were beaten 31:27 at Vardar, having played their hearts out against both European giants.
They now face none other than German champions Rhein-Neckar Löwen, who will be determined to keep up their momentum.
The Lions, who are yet to win the holy grail of Europe’s club handball after lifting their maiden Bundesliga title last season, have three points from two games after scraping past Celje 31:30 on home court following their 28:28 draw at Szeged.
Interestingly enough, this will be the first meeting between the two sides as they have never played each other in European competition.
RNL will start as strong favourites but will be wary of the fact that Meshkov are a tough nut to crack on home court, where their fervent fans create an electrifying atmosphere.
Löwen will head into the clash buoyed by a 27:20 Bundesliga win over Vfl Gummersbach, although their coach Nicolaj Jacobsen was unhappy with his team taking their feet off the gas pedal in the last 20 minutes after romping into a 20:9 lead in a lop-sided contest.
“I didn’t like it,” he said. “The first half was world class but the last third of the game is cause for concern.”
Meshkov will rely on their towering Serbian pivot Rastko Stojkovic to create space for himself and his team mates with swift movement around the six-metre line, while the backs are expected to start delivering after a pair of patchy performances against Kielce and Vardar.
MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Sunday, 17:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
A classic is on the cards as Szeged entertain the reigning kings of European club handball.
The opening two rounds showed in no uncertain terms that Kielce have every intention of retaining their crown, which they captured in such dramatic fashion at last season’s VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne.
Following their opening 28:28 home draw with RNL, Szeged showed their resilience when they ground out a 26:24 at Zagreb after trailing for much of the contest.
When Kielce come to town, some household names at both ends of the court will go down memory lane, as several players changed sides during the close-season.
Slovenian sharpshooter Dean Bombac, who moved to Kielce after netting 101 goals for Szeged in their run to the round of 16 last term, is still battling a niggling shoulder injury he sustained at the Olympic Games in Rio.
Should Bombac win the race against time and recover for the group’s clash of the titans, Szeged now he will pose a significant threat to their defensive armour which held pretty well in the opening two games.
Whether Bombac plays or not, the Hungarian side will hope that their two imports from Kielce, Croatians Denis Buntic and Marin Sego, will be inspired against their former club.
Goalkeeper Sego has had a particularly good start to the season, performing heroics between the posts which made sure Szeged collected three points in their opening two games against tough rivals.
The two sides played a pair of captivating encounters in last season’s group phase, with Szeged celebrating a memorable 31:30 win on home court before Kielce returned the favour with a 27:26 victory in Poland.
Kielce have won four out of six meetings between the two teams so far and will start as slight favourites.
“Szeged are a very strong and experienced team. Given the wholesale changes they made during the close-season, I suppose my counterpart Juan Carlos Pastor they still have some work to do before the new arrivals blend perfectly,” Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev told the club’s official website.
“We have some injured players and their absence is hampering our ability to rotate in the central positions, but we just have to deal with it.”
RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Sunday, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
The two teams from the former Yugoslavia are set to treat their fans to another hotly-contested regional derby, with Celje being the team with a more illustrious history while Vardar are an emerging force looking to emulate some of their rivals’ accomplishments.
Back in their hey-day, Celje won Europe’s flagship club competition in 2004, while Vardar have reached the quarter-finals in each of the last three seasons and are now aiming to make the next step, which would see them advance to the FINAL4 for the first time.
Both teams looked impressive in their opening two games, with Vardar winning both comfortably (IFK Kristianstad away 29:24 and Meshkov Brest at home 31:27), while Celje enjoyed a memorable 30:28 home victory against Zagreb before going down narrowly 31:30 at much more fancied Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
Although Vardar will start as clear favourites, it is difficult to predict the outcome in a match where passion and home crowd support can be factors as telling as on-court quality.
Vardar owe their good start in no small part to their towering Montenegrin left back Vuko Borozan, who proved a handful against IFK and Brest after moving from German side TuS Nettelstedt-Lübbecke during the summer break.
“It took me a while to get into my stride as the system in Germany was slightly different, but I expect to improve with every game,” Borozan told Vardar’s official website in an interview.
“I can feel the pressure already because this is the top level of European’s club handball and the expectations are always high. But that’s why I came here, to perform on the biggest stage and I am relishing every minute of it.”
Celje had a demanding and yet perfect dress rehearsal for the clash with Vardar, having put in a spirited performance in their 32:25 defeat to Veszprém in the regional SEHA-Gazprom league.
Their in-form back Miha Zarabec scored six goals against the Hungarian titleholders and the Slovenian side will hope he keeps firing on all cylinders on Sunday.