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08.02.2017, 11:11◄ last page     

FEATURE: Thanks to the success of the French national team at the World Championship, PSG overtake Barcelona to top the VELUX EHF Champions League Power Ranking.

World Championship momentum sees PSG top power ranking

Thursday, 19.00 hrs local time, SAP Arena Mannheim: It’s showtime again! The curtain raises for the restart of the VELUX EHF Champions League with a crucial Group B duel between Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Kielce.

Prior to the first of 75 matches until the final in Cologne on 4 June, EHF journalists have composed their latest Power Ranking – including the impact the World Championship had on the situation at the various clubs.

It is not a major surprise that Paris Saint-Germain, which include seven new and old French world champions, beat FC Barcelona to the post after the Spanish side led the ranking in December 2016. The EHF experts expect an improved performance by Veszprém, and got Zagreb back in the top 10, replacing Meshkov Brest.

10. RK PPD Zagreb

Was it a boost for them to make it to the semi-final again? Or do the six Croatian players from Zagreb still suffer from their unexpected defeat against Slovenia, which included three club teammates, in the small final? With the duels against Celje, Kristianstad and Brest coming up, the Croatian record champions have their fate of making it to the Last 16 still in their own hands.

9. Montpellier HB

Four French world champions, including All Star Team goalkeeper Vincent Gerard, and two Slovenian bronze medallists: What more could Montpellier expect from France 2017? The EHF Champions League winners from 2003 want to use the highflying individual results of their stars to make it from the play-offs to the Last 16 at least. The only bad news from the World Championship: Experienced Slovenian right back Vid Kavticnik has been ruled out for several months with a knee injury.

8. Pick Szeged

From position six in the December 2016 Power Ranking to position eight now: The hurdles for coach Juan Carlos Pastor’s team are high. The current second-ranked team of Group B will have to travel to Brest, Kielce and Löwen, and will host Vardar. Though the top position is still within reach, others are expected to be stronger than the Hungarian runners-up.

7. SG Flensburg-Handewitt

Some Danes have returned disappointed after their early elimination in France, Johan Jakobsson is out with a severe concussion, and then there is the major question: How will the team react to the announcement that their legendary coach Ljubomir Vranjes will join Veszprém after this season? Even the fact that Kentin Mahe returned with another gold medal has not convinced the EHF journalists too much. Away matches at Barcelona, Veszprém and the home fight against PSG, parallel to tough tasks in the Bundesliga and the German Cup, could affect the final ranking of Flensburg. But in contrast to their local rivals Kiel, at least they are still in the top 10.

6. Rhein-Neckar Löwen

The group phase so far was a rollercoaster ride for the Lions - with victories in Kielce and Skopje, but defeats against Vardar and at Brest and Zagreb. Now the team of outgoing Nicolaj Jakobsen, who will become Danish national coach, want to grab their chance to finish on top of Group B. Crucial for those ambitions will be the start against Kielce: Another win would boost their confidence, what they also hope from the extension of Mikael Appelgren’s contract. Everything is possible in the remaining five matches as all players seem to be fit.

5. Vive Tauron Kielce

Talant Dujshebaev has won many titles as a player and a coach, but surely hasn’t enjoyed winning his most recent one: The President’s Cup with the Polish national team in France. The disappointing result at the World Championship could have a negative effect on the defending champions, but the squad is different and quite international. But interestingly enough, not a single France 2017 medallist is under contract with the Champions League winners. On the other hand, the match against Löwen seems to be the last true obstacle on their way to the knockout stage for the current number 1 in Group B.

4. Vardar Skopje

Vardar finished on top of the regular SEHA-Liga season. They could benefit from a defeat of Kielce at Löwen but still have to do their homework against lower-ranked teams. The team led by coach Raul Gonzalez are the best Group B team in this power ranking. The most difficult task ahead looks to be the away game at Szeged, so finishing top of the group seems to be manageable for the Macedonian powerhouse.

3. Telekom Veszprém

No team made a bigger step ahead in the Power Ranking than the Hungarian record champions, who jumped from seventh - even below their domestic rivals Szeged – to third. Mastermind Aron Palmarsson has recovered from the injury that ruled him out of the World Championship, top scorer Momir Ilic has not been present at France as Serbia failed in the play-offs, and the handful of Hungarian players, including top stars Laszlo Nagy and Roland Mikler, caused one of the major upsets by eliminating Olympic champions Denmark in the Last 16. But the major question, similar to Flensburg: Which effect will the end of the Sabate era have on the 2015 and 2016 VELUX EHF Champions League finalists? The EHF journalists are highly optimistic that Veszprém can again make it to the FINAL4, though they are six points below Barcelona and have the matches against the Catalans, Kiel and Flensburg still ahead.

2. FC Barcelona Lassa

No team have gained more points in the group phase, but now Barcelona are part of the ‘group of death’. The way they left PSG behind in the final match of last year was impressive. Having three French world champions and the tournament’s top scorer Kiril Lazarov in their squad are proof of their quality. On the other hand, the Spanish and Danish stars returned home empty-handed from France. Barcelona have two of the toughest possible away matches coming up, at Veszprém and at Kiel. Those two encounters and the home match against Flensburg will bring the decision whether the record Champions League winners will skip the Last 16 again like last season.

1. Paris Saint-Germain

Seven world champions, the only five-time world champion in the history of handball (Thierry Omeyer), and the only club with two All Star Team members, including MVP Nikola Karabatic. If one club was the cornerstone of the sixth French world title, then it was PSG, despite the early injury of Luka Karabatic. The great French result has been the key why they passed Barcelona in the Power Ranking, as the EHF journalists handed over a premature praise for the rest of the group phase. But the World Championship can also leave some questions: Mikkel Hansen failed early, and Thierry Omeyer had to cope with the fact of only being the number 2 in the French team. But compared to Barcelona and Veszprém, their schedule seems easier with the highest hurdle the away game at Flensburg and the final clash with Kiel on home ground. The chances the Qatar-boosted French powerhouse will finish on the top spot, despite currently being two points below Barcelona, seem not too bad.

TEXT: Björn Pazen / ew

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