Shaken Kielce visit Zagreb; Lions take on high-flying Vardar
The group phase of the VELUX EHF Champions League reaches the halfway mark this week, as the battle for knockout stage berths intensifies.
Holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce will be looking to bounce back from two successive defeats as they take on HC PPD Zagreb in Varazdin, while Vardar face a stern test of their credentials at Rhein-Neckar Löwen after a magnificent home win over the Polish giants.
Zagreb expect a full house as they host Kielce in Varazdin
Lions and Vardar lock horns in the section’s derby
IFK Kristianstad at home to Szeged in a must-win game
Meshkov strong favourites on home court against Celje
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs KC Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Wednesday, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Reeling from successive defeats by Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Vardar, European club champions Kielce visit Zagreb in an environment, which may be equally unfamiliar to both sides.
In an effort to draw a full house for the clash, Zagreb have switched the clash from their original venue, the imposing arena in the Croatian capital, to a smaller but more acoustic hall in the nearby baroque city of Varazdin.
The worrying thing for Kielce is that their normally ironclad defence fell apart in the last two outings, conceding a staggering total of 74 goals against Löwen and Vardar.
The rearguard was especially poor in a resounding 40:34 defeat at Vardar in the Jane Sandanski Arena, where the home side scored 22 second-half goals to force the European club champions into a most emphatic submission.
Hence, only a win for Kielce will do against opposition who also have everything to play for, as they are bottom of the group with only two points from six games.
However, Zagreb’s performances have improved dramatically since Silvio Ivandija replaced Veselin Vujovic at the helm, with the Croatian champions handing him a dream debut with a 28:27 home win over Vardar before going down 25:24 at Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
“We are delighted to be playing in Varazdin and we couldn’t be more motivated for the clash against reigning champions Kielce, as they represent the biggest possible challenge,” Ivandija told reporters.
“They seem to be a bit out of their rhythm as they lost the last two games quite emphatically, so we are hopeful that a focused performance from start to finish could put us in a position to inflict a third successive defeat on them,” he added.
“Winning is an imperative for Kielce if they want to keep up in the race for the group’s top spot, hence we expect them to come out with all guns blazing,” said Zagreb’s line player Tin Kontrec.
“With a full house in Varazdin behind us and a performance matching the second half we produced against Löwen, we could come out on top,” he emphasised.
Interestingly enough, this will be the first meeting between the two sides in European competition.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Thursday, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
The encounter is this week’s clash of the titans in what is shaping up to be a wildly entertaining battle for the group’s top spot, which guarantees an automatic last-eight berth.
Having earned a memorable 34:26 away win over Kielce two rounds ago, Rhein-Neckar Löwen followed up with a somewhat laboured 25:24 home victory against the group’s bottom team Zagreb.
The results lifted Mannheim’s Lions to second place in the section, one point behind leaders Vardar who took pole position with a resounding 40:34 home win over Kielce last weekend.
It was by some way Vardar’s most impressive performance of the season, with Igor Karacic netting a game-high nine goals while Timur Dibirov and Alex Dujshebaev followed his lead with eight each.
The match highlighted Vardar’s attacking talent, as they pierced through one of Europe’s most heralded defences like a knife through butter.
To beat Rhein-Neckar Löwen, they will need to produce the same kind of firepower against a team also known for rock-solid defending.
“We played a good and high-scoring match against Kielce, using our fast breaks and quick transition of the ball to devastating effect,” Karacic told a news conference.
“We are proud of our performance and we have to keep this rhythm for the upcoming games,” he said.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen warmed up for the clash with a 26:24 Bundesliga win at Bergischer, which kept them fourth in the 18-team German top flight, on 18 points from 10 games.
Leaders THW Kiel have 20 points from 11 games, followed by Füchse Berlin on 19 from 11, while third-placed Flensburg have 18 from 10 and are ahead of Rhein-Neckar Löwen on goal difference.
Winning a maiden trophy in Europe’s premier club competition will be a priority for the Lions as much as retaining their Bundesliga title, and therefore one should expect a spectacular clash against an equally hungry Vardar side.
The Macedonian giants have won three of the their previous four meetings, but it was Rhein-Neckar Löwen who claimed the most recent clash between the two teams, edging Vardar 28:27 on home court in last season’s group phase.
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs MOP-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Saturday, 18:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Kristianstad simply must win this game if they are to keep alive any realistic hopes of reaching the Last 16, but that may be a big ask against a tough Szeged team aiming to finish top of the group.
The Hungarian side is fourth in the section on seven points from six games, only three adrift of leaders Vardar, meaning that they also have everything to play for in Sweden.
Szeged will be buoyed by last weekend’s comfortable 31:25 win at Celje, where Sergei Gorbok stood out with six goals, while Zsolt Balogh and Bence Banhidi added five each.
Kristianstad, in contrast, suffered a 32:27 setback at Meshkov Brest as their porous defence keeps leaking goals at an alarming rate.
The Swedish champions have conceded 179 goals so far and only two teams in Groups A and B have let in more – Kadetten Schaffhaussen (191) and RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (182).
If they are to overcome Szeged, IFK will need to close their ranks at the back and hope that their top scorer Jerry Tollbring (35) keeps firing on all cylinders against a rugged Szeged defence.
The Hungarian side will vest their attacking hopes in Gorbok and Balogh, while trying to keep things tight at the back in order to contain an unpredictable Kristianstad side, who can be a different proposition in front of their vociferous home fans.
Meshkov Brest (BLR) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO)
Saturday, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Meshkov are enjoying by some way their best season in Europe’s top flight and will see the home game against Celje as a perfect opportunity to keep climbing up the table.
Should they win, the Belarus champions will have one foot in the Last 16, which would emulate last season’s achievement and their biggest success in Europe’s premier club competition.
Meshkov are riding on a rising wave of confidence after winning three of their last four games. The run started with a stunning 30:28 home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen and they have since beaten Zagreb away and Kristianstad at home, having suffered a narrow 24:22 defeat at Szeged in the meantime.
A well-balanced workload in attack saw Meshkov dismantle IFK 32:27 in the previous round, with Pavel Atman, Dainis Kristopans and Dzianis Rutenka scoring five goals each while Rastko Stojkovic and Ljubo Vukic added four apiece.
Celje, who have the second-worst defence in Groups A and B with 182 goals conceded, will need to contain Meshkov’s high-scoring quartet if they are to spring an upset.
At the other end of the court, Luka Zvizej, Blaz Janc and Gasper Marguc will be required to find some consistency in order to break down a physical 6-0 Brest rearguard, but that may turn out to be a tall order against a combative unit thriving on fervent home support.
It will be the first meeting between the two sides in European competition and although Celje are the team with a much more illustrious history, Meshkov will start as strong favourites if recent form is anything to go by.