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06.12.2016, 15:56◄ last page     

FEATURE: Having just won the fierce clash with Paris SG, it is no surprise that Barcelona lead the way in our final power ranking of 2016. But how about the other teams heading into the winter break?

All hail the mighty Barcelona

The last VELUX EHF Champions League Power Ranking in 2016 does not contain real surprises.

However, Szeged made a huge leap forward after they moved top of Group B – even if it was just for one day. On the other hand, last year’s semi-finalists Kiel and finalists Veszprém continue to sink. Let’s rank the powers that be!

Please note that these rankings are not about how strong these teams are but about their current form based on their previous results.

10. Meshkov Brest

The team with the joint-most draws (three) after nine rounds are marching towards the knockout stage. They remained unbeaten away against all three lower-ranked teams in Group B, and are in fifth place, four points clear of Celje.

Meskhov are worthy opponents for the top teams, having beaten Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Zagreb away. Since only Kielce and Vardar scored more goals, it is a safe bet that the Belorussian team’s remaining home games (against Szeged, Zagreb and Vardar) will be spectacular clashes.

9. Rhein-Neckar Löwen

They won away in Kielce but lost at home to Vardar. Then they won in Skopje but a week later lost against Zagreb. The word you are looking for is inconsistency.

Their 253 scored goals are nothing to be ashamed of but the German powerhouse also conceded 251. Andre Schmid and Co. are very much in the race for the top spot of Group B as they are only three points behind group leaders Kielce. But they need to find that consistency. A good start would be catching Kielce when Champions League action resumes in February.

8. THW Kiel

It takes an Alfred Gislason to turn a heavy home defeat in the German derby against Flensburg into an away win against the same rivals in a week’s time. Yet, Kiel struggle as shown by their results against Wisla Plock, who remained unbeaten against the German giants snatching a point with them from Germany with patient handball in the last round.

Kiel’s defence looks solid but their attack is still influenced by the fact that they were forced to let players like Aron Palmarsson, Joan Canellas and Filip Jicha leave in previous seasons. Gislason’s branch have scored the fewest goals from all teams with nine games played in Group A. It is time for a break now but Kiel have to come back firing on all cylinders in February as their last five group games include matches against Veszprém, Barcelona and PSG.

7. Veszprém

Xavier Sabaté’s injury-hit squad finally broke their duck away from home. But the fact that it took them nine rounds to record their first away victory speaks volumes about the problems of the team that appeared in two consecutive Champions Leage finals.

It has been a troublesome year for the Hungarian outfit but this very strong squad promise a much better 2017. Once the injured players have returned, Veszprém could reach the level everybody expects from them just in time to catch up with the elite teams. This fall the top teams have been beyond their reach, hence their modest position in the last power ranking of 2016.

6. Szeged

Having beaten Veszprém in the Hungarian derby, they lead the domestic championship. And it looks like the local rivals are ahead of the Champions League finalists at international level, too.

Juan Carlos Pastor knows a thing or two about handball but creating a team from 12 new players in four months is a superb job. Yet, the Spaniard did just that: Szeged are trailing Kielce by a single point and the second-placed team conceded the least goals in Group B. Sergei Gorbok, Stas Skube and Matej Gaber fit in well with the old guard in Szeged and the young Hungarian signings also settled very quickly. All in all, Szeged look good.

5. Flensburg

With a game against Kadetten in hand, Flensburg sit fourth behind Veszprém – and likely third when they have completed Round 9. But it will be the second half of the VELUX EHF Champions League campaign that brings them the most difficult games.

Flensburg have done fairly well against the teams behind them, but they still have to travel to Veszprém and Barcelona, who they could not beat at home. Also, they will play host to the mighty PSG in February. Ljubo Vranjes put emphasis on the German powerhouse’s defence, due to which Flensburg conceded the fewest goals after eight rounds.

4. Vardar

It is like a rollercoaster for the Macedonian giants, who have already showed their magnificent as well as their faint faces. Their tremendous victory at Rhein-Neckar was followed by a home defeat to the German side, and their shocking failure to beat Zagreb was followed by the season’s best performance in the gigantic 40:34 victory over defending champions Kielce.

Vardar also put up a fight in Kielce but eventually lost despite the heroics of Alex Dujshebaev and Igor Karacic. All the above add up to a succesfull autumn run for Raul Gonzalez’s men, who sit third but could aim for a top-spot finish as Vardar are done with their most difficult games – apart from their trip to Szeged (save the date: 18 February).

3. Kielce

The defending champions might have hoped for a smoother ride to the top this autumn but Talant Dujshebaev’s men have been made to work hard for it. Kielce top their group but two heavy defeats – especially the one against Löwen in Kielce’s impregnable fortress – show just how strong Group B is. As Julen Aguinagalde, Tobias Reichmann and new signing Darko Djukic take a huge share of the team’s goal scoring, Kielce’s franchise players are also running strong: Karol Bielecki and Krysztof Lijewski are second and third among the team’s top scorers.

Kielce start 2017 with a trip to Mannheim but apart from their visit to the Löwen’s den, their remaining schedule gives them hope to finish top of the group.

2. Paris SG

The strongest group in the history of the VELUX EHF Champions League brings matches that are instant classics. This fall saw two mouth-watering Paris SG-Barcelona clashes, but it has not become easier to rank these giants. It is only PSG’s first-round defeat to Kiel that puts them in second place.

PSG have done the virtual impossible, too: They won in Veszprém, where the Hungarian team had remained unbeaten for three years. And not to mention their devastating 33:26 victory against Barcelona. PSG scored the most goals of all Champions League teams and while they also conceded a fair amount, their remarkable goal difference (+32) is second only to Barcelona. And their power ranking is, too.

1. Barcelona

Once again the Catalan powerhouse top our power ranking. Barca controlled the very strong group all autumn, and their last-round win against PSG was the well-deserved icing on the cake.

With the attacking potential of Kiril Lazarov and Wael Jallouz’s exploited, Barcelona look to be the team to beat this year. But the Lazarov-inspired victory over PSG also showed how difficult this quest is. After the mostly balanced first half, Barca came out for the second half fuming and put up a performance even PSG could not keep pace with – especially not without Mikkel Hansen, who did not feature at all.

Their massive defence backed by the mesmerising goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas also plays an important role in Barca’s excellent goal difference (+38). The team truly look like they have everything to go all the way once again.

TEXT: Bence Mártha / ew

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