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21.02.2017, 18:58◄ last page     

GROUP B PREVIEW: Defending champions Kielce are under pressure after a shock defeat at Celje, while group leaders HC Vardar have every chance of solidifying their position when they take on the Slovenian side.

Kielce out to make amends as Vardar aim to keep top spot 

The VELUX EHF Champions League is heading into the home straight and with three rounds remaining, every fixture will be decisive one way or another in what has been an enthrallingly competitive group.

Round 12 kicks off with Wednesday’s clash between Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Meshkov Brest and closes on Sunday as KS Vive Tauron Kielce, stunned by RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko in the previous round, lock horns with MOL-Pick Szeged in a battle of two teams licking their wounds after painful defeats.

In between, HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb take on IFK Kristianstad in a match crucial for both teams’ ambitions to finish in the top six, while HC Vardar face Celje in Saturday’s double header. 

Rhein-Neckar Löwen chase top spot in Group B after beating IFK Kristianstad in Round 11
Vardar aim to stay in the driving seat with a win in a regional derby
Zagreb and Kristianstad ready for a make-or-break clash
Kielce face must-win match against Szeged after fiasco in Celje


Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Wednesday, 18:30 local time, live on ehfTV

The German champions will head into the fixture as odds-on favourites, knowing that two points will at least keep them in touch with group leaders Vardar.

After Kielce’s shock defeat at Celje, Rhein-Neckar Löwen and the Macedonian giants are best placed to challenge for the top spot and with it an automatic last-eight berth.

Löwen were relieved to ground out a hard-fought 31:29 win at IFK Kristianstad in the previous round, with their potent attack personified by the trio of Rafael Baena Gonzales, Andre Schmid and Patrick Groetzki.

Schmid, who scored seven goals, was at the heart of the success as he also created space for line player Baena (eight goals) and Groetzki (five) with his incisive passes. 

Meshkov, in contrast, squandered a two-goal lead late in their 21:21 home draw with Zagreb, which dented any hopes of winning the group or even finishing in the top four, as they have a tough schedule in the final three games.

After the visit to Germany, Meshkov face Vardar at home and then defending champions Kielce away in their last fixture. Therefore, it will be an uphill task for the fifth-placed side from Belarus to climb into the top half of the fiercely competitive group.    

HC Vardar (MKD) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) 
Saturday, 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

The regional derby between two teams from former Yugoslavia will be spiced up after Celje’s sensational home win over Kielce. Having seen what the Slovenian champions can do, Macedonian giants Vardar will certainly not take victory for granted.

Two points would be a sheer bonus for Celje, who are now in the driving seat to finish sixth and clinch a place in the Last 16, while Vardar will see winning as an imperative – if Löwen defeat Brest on Wednesday, nothing less will keep the Macedonian team on top of the group and on course to clinch an automatic quarter-final berth.

Vardar earned a precious 23:21 win at Szeged in the previous round, largely thanks to their majestic goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik, who frustrated the Hungarian side with a string of superb saves, including three penalties.

Timur Dibirov (six goals) and Croatian back court dynamo Igor Karacic (five) shone at the other end, while the tightly marked Alex Dujshebaev (three) scored a pair of decisive goals in the closing stages.

The two teams have, oddly enough, only met twice in Europe’s premier club competition, and Vardar came out on top both times. Each match saw a tight encounter, as Vardar beat Celje 27:26 away in September 2014 before they completed the double with a 34:32 success at home two months later.   

HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE) 
Saturday, 20:00 local time, live on ehfTV

There is no other way to describe this clash than as a do-or die dogfight for a sixth-place finish, which would mean avoiding an early exit from the VELUX EHF Champions League. 

Both teams produced excellent performances in the previous round, with Zagreb clinching a 21:21 draw at Meshkov after trailing throughout the contest. 

Kristianstad gave Rhein-Neckar Löwen a good run for their money in a 29:31 home defeat to the German title holders, but were undone in the closing stages by their rivals’ deeper roster.

A draw will do neither side any favours in trying to keep up or leapfrog Celje in the three-way battle for sixth place, hence one can expect a rip-roaring encounter likely to keep fans on the edge of their seats from start to finish.

Zagreb will rely on the good form of their defence, which did a splendid job containing Meshkov’s Dainis Kristopans in Brest, having reduced the towering Latvian to a mere two goals. A balanced workload in attack was led by Stipe Mandalinic (four goals), but Zagreb’s hopes of beating IFK largely rest on containing the Swedish side’s lethal fast breaks.

Kristianstad, on the other hand, will hope that Olafur Gudmundsson (10 goals against Löwen) and Albin Lagergren (eight) can keep firing on all cylinders against the Croatian champions.     

MOTW: KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)   
Sunday, 18:00 local time, live on ehfTV

Having suffered a shock lesson at Celje, which was also a bitter blow to their ambitions of winning the group, European club champions Kielce must make amends when they face Szeged in the group’s most high-profile fixture of the weekend.

Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev was incensed by his team’s astonishing lapse of concentration in the match against Celje, when they spilled a three-goal lead in the last few minutes and allowed the home side to clinch a memorable win with a last-gasp goal.

Dujshebaev will be especially concerned with his team’s poor defence throughout the contest, which could again cost them dearly against a much stronger Szeged side who are still in contention to win the group, albeit with an outside chance.

The Round 11 result left Kielce trailing group leaders Vardar by two points and while the quest to clinch an automatic quarter-final berth is no longer entirely in their own hands, the Polish giants know that anything less than two points would effectively end their hopes of passing Vardar and second-placed Löwen to claim pole position.

Szeged, who are one point adrift of Kielce, face a two-fold battle to stay ahead of fifth-placed Meshkov while also eyeing the section’s summit, which looks a mountain to climb after the painful home defeat by Vardar.

The rivals have met six times in the VELUX EHF Champions League, with Kielce winning four and Szeged two games. Last season produced a pair of fascinating encounters in the group phase, as Szeged edged Kielce 31:30 at home before the Polish side returned the favour with a 27:26 defeat of the Hungarian outfit.      

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cg

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