|09.11.2016, 16:40||◄ last page|
GROUP B PREVIEW: Defending champions KS Vive Tauron Kielce visit HC Vardar in a top of the table clash, while HC PPD Zagreb return to last season’s happy hunting ground in the section’s standout matches this week
Kielce and Vardar in clash of titans; Lions wary of Zagreb threat
Handball fans around Europe will be glued to their television sets when Kielce visit Vardar for what should be a spectacular encounter between the group’s top two teams and this round's Match of the Week.
In this week’s curtain-raiser in Group B, Zagreb take on Rhein-Neckar Löwen at the same venue where they eliminated the German side in last season’s round of 16, while Celje face a tough home outing against Kristianstad.
• Kielce and Vardar both aiming to bounce back from shock defeats
Rhein-Neckar Löwen will need no reminder how tricky this encounter can be, having suffered a shock exit against Zagreb in last season’s round of 16. Following a 24:23 win in the Croatian capital, Mannheim’s Lions spilled a first-half lead in a 31:29 home defeat which saw the Croatian side reach the last eight.
Zagreb are heading to Germany buoyed by their impressive 28:27 home win over Vardar in the previous round, which handed their new coach Silvio Ivandija a dream debut.
Since their victory against the Macedonian giants, Zagreb have earned a 28:28 draw at Meshkov Brest and a 34:29 win over Bosnian rivals Izvidjac Ljubuski in the regional SEHA League, keeping their confidence high ahead of the difficult trip to Frankfurt.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen will also head into the contest with their spirits high, having demolished holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce 34:26 away in the previous round.
It was by some way Löwen best performance of the season in Europe’s premier club competition, stirring hopes among the club’s army of fans that this might be their season in the VELUX EHF Champions League.
Having won the Bundesliga last term, the German champions are trying to capture the holy grail of European handball, a mission they could not accomplish last season when they got knocked out by Zagreb.
“Zagreb endured a poor start in the Champions League but have a really good squad,” Löwen assistant coach Oliver Roggisch told the club’s website.
“Some of their top performers have left the club but Zagreb always find out ways to churn out new players, meaning that we have to produce a 100 percent effort if we want to win,” he said.
The teams have met eight times before and Rhein-Neckar Löwen hold a palpable advantage, having won four times while three of the encounters ended in a draw and Zagreb won only one.
But the Croatian champions triumphed when it mattered, in their last meeting, and Löwen will thus be wary just how dangerous their opponents are.
MOTW: HC Vardar (MKD) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Undoubtedly the most entertaining tie of the round in Group B and the Match of the Week, as both teams aim to bounce back from shock defeats in their previous outings.
While Vardar slipped to a 28:27 reverse at fellow Balkan rivals Zagreb, Kielce suffered a comprehensive 34:26 home drubbing at the hands of an inspired Rhein-Neckar Löwen side.
The results ended a perfect four-match winning start for both teams, but they were still able to stay top of the group, as they had built quite an advantage over their rivals.
It will be the fifth meeting between the two sides, with Kielce winning three and Vardar one of their previous four matches.
Vardar enjoyed an emphatic 34:24 win in the corresponding fixture of last season’s group phase, but Kielce got some measure of revenge with a 23:20 home success, en route to their maiden VELUX EHF Champions League title.
The arrival of Europe’s club champions will certainly draw a capacity crowd in Skopje’s Jane Sandanski Arena, an impregnable fortress even for the most heralded opposition facing Vardar.
Both teams will want to improve their defending after last round’s upsets, as chinks in the armour at the back made them drop points against rivals they were expected to beat.
Kielce will also hope that veteran Karol Bielecki gets more support from his team mates than he did against Löwen, when he topped his team’s scoring chart with eight goals.
The duel will also feature a reunion of Vardar's right back Alex Dujshebaev with his father Talant at the helm of Kielce, while speedy Croatian winger Ivan Cupic in a black and red uniform will receive his former teammates with whom he lifted the most coveted trophy last May.
An important game for both teams, as Celje are hard-pressed to move up the table while Szeged have a chance to gain ground on some of their rivals in the upper half of the standings.
Following their opening 30:28 home win over Zagreb, Celje have taken only one point from four games and desperately need a win to get into top six, which in turn guarantees a knockout stage berth.
Szeged have had a 50 percent success ratio, with a record of two wins, as many defeats and one draw, which leaves them fourth in the group.
The Hungarian side’s position is delicate, as they are halfway between the section’s front-runners and those looking to avoid an early exit.
In such a fiercely competitive environment, Szeged will surely see the visit to Slovenia as a perfect chance to snatch much-needed points away from home, which could make all the difference at the end of the group phase.
Szeged head into the contest on the back of a hard-fought 24:22 home win over Meshkov Brest, while Celje were held to a 29:29 draw at IF Kristianstad in the previous round.
Celje hold a slender lead in the head-to-head record, having won two and lost one of their four encounters with Szeged, while the other one ended in a draw.
This fixture is by all means and purposes a dogfight to stay in the top six, with Meshkov in fifth place on four points from two games while sixth-placed Kristianstad are breathing down their necks a single point adrift.
A win presents added value for both teams as seventh-placed Celje are level on three points with IFK, while bottom team Zagreb, on two points, also have every chance of staying in the hunt for a knockout stage berth.
Brest will be buoyed by a fine performance in a narrow 24:22 defeat at Szeged in the previous round, while IFK will feel their glass was half-empty after a 29:29 home draw with Celje.
A balanced workload in attack has been the feature of Meshkov’s hitherto effort, while Kristianstad continue to rely on the shooting prowess of speedy winger Jerry Tollbring as well as the backcourt duo of Albin Lagergren and Tim Sörensen.
The teams have never met before in European competition, hence their inaugural clash should produce plenty of thrills and spills in Belarus.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br