|11.10.2016, 19:10||◄ last page|
GROUP B PREVIEW: Defending champions KS Vive Tauron Kielce are odds-on favourites against RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko on home court, while HC Vardar face a stern test of their credentials against MOL-Pick Szeged.
Kielce set to roll on, Szeged lock horns with Vardar
The fourth round in the VELUX EHF Champions League Group B offers two evenly-balanced contests and a couple of encounters where the home teams are strong favourites.
Kielce look poised to celebrate a fourth successive win when they entertain Celje and Rhein-Neckar Löwen are also expected to come out on top against IFK Kristianstad on home court.
Closer battles are expected when Zagreb take on Meshkov Brest in the Croatian capital and especially in the section’s derby, with Vardar up against Szeged in the iconic Jane Sandanski Arena.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
The German champions were on the receiving end of one of the biggest group phase shocks in recent memory, having lost to Meshkov Brest 30:28 in the previous round.
The result and the performance underlined chinks in Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s armour, which IFK Kristianstad will be eager to exploit when the two sides clash in Frankfurt in the round’s curtain-raiser.
The meeting with the Swedish side will bring back mixed memories for Löwen, who suffered a stinging 32:29 defeat to IFK last season before they avenged the setback with a 29:20 win on home court.
The Lions from Mannheim, with their pride wounded by last weekend’s defeat in Belarus, are expected to roar back against Kristianstad and anything less than two points would signal a crisis.
In contrast, the visitors will be buoyed by their 29:22 home rout of Zagreb which meant they chalked up their first VELUX EHF Champions League points of the season.
Albin Lagergren shone with a game-high nine goals, by some way his best performance and biggest scoring tally in European competition, hence the Swedish side can count on another potent attacker alongside Jerry Tollbring and Tim Sorensen.
The VELUX EHF Champions League holders showed nerves of steel and resilience akin only to true champions in grinding out a 29:27 win at Szeged, when they wiped out a three-goal deficit in the second half.
It was their third successive Group B win and they are expected to extend their perfect start to four victories when they entertain the Slovenian champions, who were soundly beaten 32:26 on home court by Vardar.
So deep is Kielce’s roster that even the absence of prolific left back Michal Jurecki could not stop the Polish giants from carving out an impressive victory in Hungary against one of Europe’s most heralded teams.
A balanced scoring workload saw Krzysztof Lijewski lead the charge with six goals, followed by the evergreen Karol Bielecki on five, while Juan Aguinagalde and Manuel Strlek chipped in with four each.
Even more impressive was Kielce’s defending, superbly marshaled by Croatian goalkeeper Filip Ivic, who has been nothing short of brilliant since he joined the European club champions from Zagreb during the close-season.
Lasko, on the other hand, can only be asked to play their hearts out against more fancied opposition and hope that the contest turns into one of those days when David beats Goliath.
Being the section’s only team with no points on the board, Zagreb will see the home game against Meshkov as an absolute must-win, if they are to keep alive any realistic hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
The weekend’s 29:22 setback at Kristianstad, where the injury-hit Croatian champions appeared to be in total disarray, does not make happy reading ahead of the clash with fired-up Meshkov, whose confidence will be sky-high after a most impressive 30:28 home win over the mighty German champions.
Zagreb’s coach Veselin Vujovic made it clear in no uncertain terms after the fiasco that his team had no choice but to knuckle down and work hard in order to get back to winning ways.
“The defeat at IFK was a bitter blow and the match against HC Metalurg in the regional SEHA league on Tuesday evening will be a good test of character ahead of the Meshkov game,” Vujovic told a news conference preceding Zagreb's 29:20 win against the Group C participant.
Left back Luka Sebetic added: “We are out of form and enduring a poor run of results, but a win against Metalurg would restore some of our shattered confidence.”
The contrast in mood could not be starker at Meshkov, who produced an effervescent performance against Rhein-Neckar and prevailed thanks to a blistering display by seven-goal Latvian Dainis Kristopans.
Serbian pivot Rastko Stojkovic, the team’s driving force, added six and the visitors will be confident of their ability to force Zagreb into submission when they clash in the Croatian capital’s imposing arena.
HC Vardar (MKD) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Sitting proudly at the top of the group alongside reigning champions Kielce, with a maximum six points from three games, the Macedonian giants face their most difficult opposition yet in this season’s group phase.
Szeged came within touching distance of beating Kielce on Sunday and having spilled a three-goal lead midway through the second half, they will be eager to erase those bitter memories with a good performance and result against Vardar.
This will be the fifth VELUX EHF Champions League meeting between the two sides and Vardar will be buoyed by winning both clashes last season, when they beat the Hungarian side 27:23 at home and 31:29 away.
The Macedonian’s side strength lies in a deep roster offering an array of match-winners, with Serbian line player Mijajlo Marsenic emerging as the decisive factor in Sunday’s 32:26 win at Celje with a game-high six goals.
Just as impressive is Vardar’s rearguard, as they have conceded only 76 goals in the opening three rounds, which constitutes the third-toughest defence with Flensburg (71) and Barcelona (75) ahead of them.
The scoring tally of 91 is only behind Paris Saint-Germain Handball (95) and Kielce (96), hence Vardar will head into the cash with Szeged as slight favourites to stretch their winning start to four games.
The Hungarian side will take a lot of positives from the opening 45 minutes of their bruising encounter with Kielce, but in order to come away with something from the cauldron of Jane Sandanski Arena, they will need to be consistent for the full length of the match.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br