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21.10.2016, 12:38◄ last page     

GROUP B PREVIEW: Holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce and HC Vardar appear poised to carry on what is already shaping up to be a fierce battle for the top spot in Group B of the VELUX EHF Champions League

Kielce and Vardar set to continue neck-to-neck battle

Four rounds into the VELUX EHF Champions League group stage, holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce and HC Vardar are standing apart from the rest of the pack in Group B and this weekend they have every chance of extending their perfect starts.

Kristianstad and Celje will lock horns in what should be a ferocious dogfight between two teams aiming to finish in the group’s top six and thus reach the knockout stages, while Szeged will be clear favourites on home court against high-flying Brest.

• Kielce at home to Löwen in the section’s clash of the titans
• Wounded Zagreb with a new coach welcome rampant Vardar in a regional derby and the Match of the Week
• IFK and Celje looking for vital points in Last 16 quest
• Fired-up Meshkov have nothing to lose at more fancied Szeged

GROUP B        
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (CRO)
Saturday, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Predictably, these two teams were always going to be involved in a bottom-half battle to avoid an early exit from Europe’s flagship club competition.

They both have two points from their opening four games and the clash in Sweden could be of vital importance in their quest to finish in the group’s top six, which guarantees a Last 16 berth.

There is very little or nothing between the two outfits, both nurturing a quick transition of the ball with plenty of fast breaks.

Kristianstad warmed up for the clash with a hard-fought 24:22 Swedish league win at Karlskrona to stay second in the 14-team domestic championship with 10 points from six games, one behind front-runners Lugi.

IFK wiped out a four-goal half-time deficit (16:12) and swung the match their way with an ironclad defensive performance in the second half, conceding only six goals while scoring 12 to come out on top.

That will be the recipe to beat an unpredictable Celje side, who have so far been a mixed bag in both the VELUX EHF Champions League and the regional SEHA League, where they are languishing in sixth place in the 10-team competition, with a mere six points from seven games.

The Slovenian side have conceded more goals (122) than any of their group rivals and will need to shore up their leaks at the back if they are to upset IFK, whose noisy fans will once again be a telling factor.

MOTW: HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday, 20:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Having parted company with coach Veselin Vujovic by mutual consent, Zagreb are heading into the clash with Vardar knowing that it is probably their last realistic chance of staying in the hunt for a top-six finish, and hence a knockout stage berth.

However, winning their first points of the season will be a tough task against regional rivals Vardar, who have showed all their might in the opening four matches to sit atop the section, level with reigning champions Kielce.

There is little doubt that Vujovic’s departure has rattled the Croatian title holders, who have looked completely at sea in their opening four games and played well below their potential.

They warmed up for the clash with a 27:22 home win over Tatran Presov in the regional SEHA league, with Stipe Mandalinic rediscovering a rich vein of form with a game-high eight goals.

Zlatko Horvat added six and Luka Sebetic chipped in with four, giving new coach Silvio Ivandija hope that his side can at least give Vardar a good run for their money.

“We are playing a mighty Vardar at a bad moment, but I feel that optimism has returned to the dressing room and I am confident that fans in the Zagreb Arena will see a rejuvenated team,” Ivandija told a news conference after he was named Vujovic’s successor on Thursday.

“A change of coach is never comfortable for the players, the club or even the new coach. We have to knuckle down to hard work in order to get out of this situation, it is a massive challenge for the club.”

Vardar, in contrast, have no such woes.

They boast a perfectly-balanced outfit which has so far fired on all cylinders in both competitions.

The Macedonian giants are also top of the SEHA League with seven wins and one draw, underlining the depth of their roster and the club’s ambition to go all the way in the VELUX EHF Champions League this season.  

MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs HC Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Sunday, 17:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

This should be a straight-forward task for Szeged, who have won all their four European clashes with Meshkov so far, but the Hungarian side will be wary of their rivals’ current form.

Meshkov have improved gradually in Europe’s premier club competition down the years and this season they have already notched two wins from four games, including a stunning 30:28 home victory against RNL.

The side from Belarus have a genuine chance of reaching the last 16 and will see the visit to Szeged as an opportunity to come away with something out of the blue against more heralded opposition.

They last met in the group stage of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2007/08 season, when Szeged celebrated a 24:22 win in Brest before they blew away Meshkov 33:34 on home court.

But the moods will be contrasting when they lock horns this time, as Szeged are reeling after a 30:27 defeat at Vardar while Meshkov’s confidence is soaring following an impressive 27:22 win in Zagreb.

The home side will need to address defensive frailty which has led them to conceding an avalanche of easy goals in Skopje, while their striking pins in attack were subdued against Vardar – bar the clinical penalty taking by Zsolt Balogh.

He finished with a game-high nine goals but six of them came from the seven-metre line and the sharpshooter will again rely on his teammates to create space with swift goalmouth movement. However he will miss Belarus-born Sergei Gorbok as the Russian left back is recovering from a nose fracture.

Meshkov will put their faith in the continued good form of towering Latvian Dainis Kristopans and Serbian pivot Rastko Stojkovic, who have led their charge in the opening four games. 

KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)
Sunday, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Saving the best for last means the two powerhouses will clash in the group’s final fixture of the weekend, providing a treat to handball fans across Europe.

It will arguably be Kielce’s sternest test yet in the section since they won their maiden VELUX EHF Champions League title last season, with the German champions coming to town intent on ending the Polish side’s  four-match winning start this term.

It will be yet another fascinating battle between the old rivals, who are almost deadlocked in their nine encounters so far.

They have three wins each while another three clashes ended in draws, with Rhein-Neckar holding a slight edge in the overall goal-difference (260:258).

In the last season’s group phase, they fought out a 32:32 draw in Germany while Kielce won the home court fixture 28:27 en route to lifting the coveted trophy for the first time in the club’s history.

Judging by current form, Kielce are favourites to come out on top as they have steamrolled over their rivals so far, while the Lions have somewhat struggled.

The draw at Szeged apart, Löwen suffered a shock 30:28 defeat at Meshkov before they ground out a 30:29 home win over Kristianstad, showing plenty of chinks in the amour.

Kielce’s coach Talant Dujshebaev stressed that his side faced a tough proposition.

“RNL are the current German champions and that speaks a lot about their quality,” he told a news conference.

“They have plenty of experience and world class players, like Andy Schmid who has been playing at a very high level in the last four or five years, as well as Kim Ekhdal du Rietz, who is one of the most versatile left-side players in the world at both ends of the court. It is very difficult to play in the Bundesliga and the Champions League at the same time but despite Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s exertions on both fronts, we know it will be a very difficult match for us.”  

RNL are third in the Bundesliga with 14 points from eight games, behind perennial rivals Flensburg (a maximum 14 from seven) and THW Kiel (16 from nine), but have so far found the VELUX EHF Champions League a more demanding environment.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br

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