|29.11.2016, 19:30||◄ last page|
GROUP B PREVIEW: The fight for the No. 1 position in the group could take another twist before the winter break as HC Vardar visit defending champions KC Vive Tauron Kielce.
Vardar visit Kielce as four-way top spot battle continues
The tussle for the VELUX EHF Champions League Group B’s top spot could not be more exciting as four teams in the upper half of the table are separated by only one point.
The last round of matches before the winter break offers a titanic clash between the top two, leaders HC Vardar and reigning champions Kielce.
Third-placed Szeged should have a fairly straight-forward task at home against RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko, while fourth-placed Rhein-Neckar Löwen face a tricky trip to Zagreb. IFK Kristianstad host HC Meshkov Brest in a must-win game for the Swedish outfit.
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs HC Meshkov Brest (BLR)
A game both teams will see as an ideal opportunity to fulfill their ambitions of reaching the Last 16, hence one should expect a thriller in Europe’s northern-most Champions League venue.
Meshkov are fairly safe in fifth place with eight points from as many games. A victory in Sweden would cement their position and leave them firmly on course to advance to the knockout rounds of Europe’s elite club competition.
They will head into the clash after two successive draws against sixth-placed Celje, who are three points behind them, while Kristianstad know this is a must-win game as they are seventh with only three points after scraping a solitary draw in their last five games.
The worrying aspect for the Swedish side is that their prolific winger scorer Jerry Tollbring has netted only six times in the last two games, while the team has also struggled defensively as they conceded 20 first-half goals in the previous round’s 33:28 defeat at Szeged.
Meshkov, on the other hand, rifled in 65 goals in their double-header against Celje but also conceded as many.
The Belarus champions will probably feel that they missed an opportunity to take the maximum four points against their struggling Slovenian rivals, and will therefore see the visit to Sweden as a good chance for redemption.
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)
Having switched their home venue to Varazdin for the 26:23 defeat by Kielce, Croatian title holders Zagreb return to the imposing arena in the Balkan nation’s capital for the all-important clash with Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
Despite improving their form since Silvio Ivandija replaced Veselin Vujovic as coach, Zagreb are still bottom of the group with only two points from eight games.
If they are to keep alive any hopes of advancing to the Last 16, Zagreb have to start winning games and the upcoming clash with the German champions will be a stern test of their credentials.
It will be a mountain they have already climbed, though, as Zagreb sent shock waves through European handball corridors last season when they beat Mannheim’s Lions in the Last 16.
Earlier this season, Rhein-Neckar Löwen edged Zagreb 25:24 in another dramatic contest and there is little doubt that fans in the 15,000-seater, which was home to last weekend’s Davis Cup tennis final between Croatia and Argentina, will be treated to another classic.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen have won five of the nine meetings between the two sides, three ended in a draw while Zagreb’s solitary triumph was the one that propelled them into last season’s quarter-finals.
The Croatian title holders have no room for error if they are to avoid a looming early exit from Europe’s top flight competition.
MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO)
A fine run of form has seen Szeged surge into the section’s top three, and with other results going their way, the Hungarian giants are in a great position to challenge for the top spot.
They are only one point behind front-runners Vardar and Kielce, so a home win against Celje could lift them to the pinnacle ahead of the winter break.
If current form is anything to go by, there should only be one winner in this tie, with Szeged winning their last four games including a 31:25 stroll over Celje in the reverse fixture.
Last weekend, the Hungarian side enjoyed an easy 33:28 home win over Kristianstad, having beaten the Swedish side 29:21 away the week before. Those two victories came on the back of thrashing Celje and edging Meshkov Brest 24:22, as Szeged hit top gear at crunch time.
Celje earned a pair of important draws against Meshkov in their last two fixtures as their sought-after star Blaz Janc scored nine goals in a 36:36 draw in Belarus, which came on the back of a 29:29 stalemate in Slovenia, where Janc netted seven times.
The right wing’s continued good form will be essential to Celje’s bid of staying in the top six and progressing to the Last 16, but getting a result at Szeged may be a tall order for a side that has failed to win a game since their 30:28 home victory over Zagreb.
KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
The section’s last game before the VELUX EHF Champions League enters its winter break offers a real treat for handball fans across Europe as reigning champions Kielce take on table-topping Vardar at home.
It will be the sixth meeting between the two sides, with Kielce winning three and Vardar two of their previous encounters.
The most recent one, when Vardar came out on top 40:34 in the group’s reverse fixture in Skopje, will long live in the memory of Macedonian handball fans. Their team dismantled the champions with an impressive performance in the cauldron of the iconic Jane Sandanski Arena a fortnight ago.
In that clash, Vardar’s Croatian playmaker Igor Karacic rifled in nine goals while Alex Dujshebaev and Timur Dibirov added eight each.
The upcoming duel will bring another father-versus-son battle, as Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev will try to find a way to contain Alex, who put in an inspired performance when the two sides met in the Macedonian capital.
The defeat came amid a poor run for Kielce, which had previously suffered a 34:26 home drubbing by Rhein-Neckar Löwen. They bounced back with two successive wins over Zagreb to get their campaign back on track following the crushing defeat by Vardar.
Vardar enjoyed a fine run until last round’s 29:26 home defeat by the Löwen, which came as a setback after an impressive 33:27 away win over the German side the week before.
The match should be full of thrills and spills as both teams aim to finish top of the group and clinch an automatic quarter-final berth.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljević / ew