Lions out to get their revenge on high-flying Vardar
Stunned by Vardar on home court last week, Rhein-Neckar Löwen are headed to Skopje aiming to settle a score with the group leaders, who have been in devastating form lately.
Holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce should have a simple task on home court against HC PPD Zagreb in the match of the week, with MOL-Pick Szeged also strong favourites against visiting IFK Kristianstad.
• Rhein-Neckar Löwen need to improve defensively to beat Vardar
• Kielce should have too much firepower for Zagreb in the Match of the Week
• Szeged have an excellent chance to close in on top spot
• Brest face tricky trip to desperate Celje Pivovarna Lasko
HC Vardar (MKD) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)
Saturday, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Vardar’s empathic 33:27 win at Rhein-Neckar Löwen last week was not exactly a sensation, but the manner in which the Macedonian champions demolished the more fancied German title holders certainly sent shock waves through European handball corridors.
Vardar at one point threatened to run riot as they led 30:21 as the match headed into the last 10 minutes, before the hosts salvaged some pride with a late rally which hardly offered any consolations to their fans.
If they are to turn the tables on Vardar and avenge the defeat, Rhein-Neckar Löwen will need to produce a much more solid defensive performance in order to contain Vardar’s free-flowing attack.
That may turn out to be a tall order, though, as the Macedonian side are so far the competition’s highest-scoring outfit in this season’s group phase with a total of 221 goals in 7 matches, averaging an impressive 31.5 per game.
“We played a very good match against Rhein-Neckar Löwen 10 days ago but in order to beat them again, we have to remember that we are up against a very good team,” Vardar coach Raul Gonzales told a news conference.
“We have to be content with a one-goal win rather than start thinking how to achieve a record-breaking victory. We have to make our current momentum count but we expect Rhein-Neckar Löwen to be a different proposition this time,” he said.
Robust line player Stojance Stoilov added: “We played a perfect match in Germany but that doesn’t mean that we can easily repeat it on home court. However, we have a great atmosphere and this is a colossal chance for us to show once again that we are a big club.”
Rhein-Neckar Löwen warmed up for the clash with a resounding 33:23 Bundesliga win at Minden which kept them top of the table on 22 points from 12 games, ahead of THW Kiel on goal difference.
MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Saturday, 18:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Having celebrated a convincing 29:21 win at IFK Kristianstad in the previous round, MOL-Pick Szeged expect to collect two more points against the same opposition on home court.
Anything apart from another victory for the Hungarian side would be a massive upset, although the home team will be wary of their plucky and unpredictable rivals capable of springing upsets.
Szeged will see this is a must-win game also because they have a great chance of staying in the top three and perhaps even of closing in on the top-spot, in case front-runners Vardar slip up at home against Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
Sergei Gorbok, who joined Szeged from Vardar during the summer break, has been pulling all the strings for the Hungarian outfit this term and was their top scorer in Kristianstad with seven goals.
The versatile playmaker also dished out a barrage of assists to his team mates and containing the Russian maestro will be Kristianstad’s first priority if they are to keep alive any hopes of avoiding defeat.
At the other end of the court, the Swedish side will rely on Jerry Tollbring to rediscover his shooting form after scoring a mere two goals in the reverse fixture, as he struggled against a rock-solid Szeged rearguard.
In a useful dress rehearsal for the clash, Szeged extended their perfect record in the Hungarian top division to 11 wins from as many games after a 33:24 away rout of Balmazujvaros.
It kept them in second position, behind leaders Veszprem who have 30 points from 16 games after a 28:20 win at Eger.
KC Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs HC PPD Zagreb (CRO)
Sunday, 18:00 hrs local time, ehfTV.com Match of the Week
Rocked by two successive defeats against Rhein-Neckar Löwen (34:26 at home) and Vardar (40:34 away), VELUX EHF Champions League holders Kielce bounced back with a somewhat laboured 26:23 win at HC PPD Zagreb, who held their own against the kings of Europe’s club handball for long spells.
Kielce conceded a staggering total of 74 goals in those two losses and although they shored up the leaks against Vardar, the Polish giants wobbled rather than sprinted across the finish line after a decent second half allowed them to overturn a 12:11 half-time deficit.
No single player stood out in Kielce’s away win over Zagreb, but a balanced team effort in attack yielded two-much needed points in the hunt for the group’s top spot.
The champions of Poland and Europe had a stormy interlude to the upcoming home court clash with the Croatian title holders, needing overtime to scrape a 39:38 home win over Azoty-Pulawy which kept them top of the domestic league.
Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev attributed their rivals’ resilience to a fast-improving quality of the Polish league.
“The level of the Polish league is growing all the time and it will only get more difficult to win games,” he said after seeing his side grind out a fortuitous home win. “We missed many one-on-one chances and were also lucky within the regular 60 minutes,” he added.
Zagreb, for their part, also had a dramatic warm-up for the clash with Kielce, as they needed a last-gasp thunderbolt by Stipe Mandalinic to overcome fellow Champions League rivals Celje 28:27 in the regional SEHA league.
Mandalinic was again Zagreb’s top performer with 8 goals, confirming his status as one of the most sought-after left backs in Europe, while Blaz Janc followed in his footsteps with a game-high nine goals for Celje.
RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Sunday, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
This is a must-win game for Celje, who are languishing in sixth place and another home defeat or even a draw would leave them with a mountain to climb in order to progress to the knockout stages.
Meshkov, in contrast, will see the match as an ideal opportunity to keep up their good form and possibly move up the ladder, after amassing eight points in their opening seven games.
In a bygone era, the Slovenian side would have been odds-on favourites in their heyday to win this fixture, but Meshkov are now a force in the making while Celje are a pale shadow of the side which once featured as one of the most feared teams in Europe.
Still, Celje sprung a bit of a surprise by holding Meshkov to a 29:29 draw in the reverse fixture in Belarus, with Luka Zvizej (8) and Blaz Janc (7) scoring 15 of their goals, while Ziga Mlakar and Miha Zarabec added five each.
The quartet’s firepower will be essential for Celje’s bid to win their first home game since the opening 30:28 victory against Zagreb, while Meshkov will hope to reproduce the form which saw them beat the likes of Rhein-Neckar Löwen (30:28).
Either way, fans should expect an exciting and unpredictable match. With so much at stake, it may come down to a moment of inspiration or individual skill.