Rhein-Neckar Löwen squeeze past battling Brest
HC Meshkov Brest looked on their way to pulling off a major upset against German champions Rhein-Neckar Löwen when Round 12 of the VELUX EHF Champions League opened on Wednesday night, but Mannheim’s ‘Lions’ dug deep in the home straight to eke out a precious win which could see them clinch an automatic quarter-final berth in Europe’s premier club competition.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen edge Brest 25:24 in a see-saw encounter
Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson and Andre Schmid lead the winners with seven goals each
Atsiom Kulak, Rastko Stojkovic and Dainis Kristopans stand out for Brest with six apiece
The result lifts Rhein-Neckar Löwen to the top of the table with the rest of the group still to play their Round 12 encounters
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs HC Meshkov Brest (BLR) 25:24 (11:12)
Meshkov Brest came agonisingly close to stunning Rhein-Neckar Löwen but the German title holders prevailed in a tense finish thanks to their top two performers, Icelandic winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson and versatile Swiss playmaker Andre Schmid.
The outcome provisionally lifted Mannheim’s Lions to the top of the group, as they have 17 points from 12 games, one more than HC Vardar who are playing at home versus RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko on Saturday.
Visitors dominate first half
The visitors from Belarus thrived in a physical battle and took an 8:5 lead midway through the first half, largely thanks to the long-range firepower of their towering Latvian right back Dainis Kristopans.
Making the most of Schmid’s playmaking abilities, Spanish line player Rafael Baena Gonzalez was unstoppable from the six-metre line at the other end, as Rhein-Neckar Löwen fought hard to stay in touch.
“Currently the momentum is on my side. After eight goals from eight against Kielce, now it was six from six,” said Baena after the match. “Brest were a tough nut to crack, and as usual, when we play at Frankfurt, we only win by one goal. We took a lucky, but deserved win.”
The home team’s gamble of attacking with an extra player while leaving their goal empty paid early dividends, but started to backfire in the closing stages of the first half as Meshkov were able to stay three goals ahead (11:8).
A late surge then allowed the home side to slash the deficit by half-time as they put together several flowing moves.
A titanic tussle
It seemed the German title holders, who are chasing their maiden VELUX EHF Champions League trophy, would romp away after turning the tide and taking a 16:14 lead early in the second half.
They were still in control when they retained a two-goal lead (20:18) heading into the last 15 minutes, but a 6:2 streak by Brest turned the match on its head and ensured a dramatic climax.
It turned out to be Meshkov’s last roar in the titanic tussle as Rhein-Neckar Löwen forced the final twist thanks to Sigurdsson and Schmid, the latter scoring the game’s final goal before the home team’s goalkeeper Mikael Appelgren pushed a desperate shot by Kristopans above the bar.
Schmid and Sigurdsson excelled for Löwen with seven goals each and the efficient Baena netted six from as many shots.
Kristopans, Serbian line player Stojkovic and Kulak rifled in six each for Brest while Vladislav Ostroushko chipped in with five. Goalkeeper Ivan Pesic was Brest’s only other scorer as he found the back of the net with an end-to-end shot on an empty goal, underlining his side’s limited options in attack.