Vital wins for Vardar and Zagreb
Vardar and Zagreb had very different goals ahead of their Saturday games, but both teams engineered valuable home wins to delight their fans.
The Macedonian giants leapt back into the group’s pole position with a resounding win over Slovenian rivals Celje, while the Croatian title-holders moved off the foot of the table into sixth position after overpowering IFK Kristianstad.
Vardar stroll to 35:30 win over Celje as Dujshebaev shines
The Macedonian side snatch pole position back from Löwen
Zagreb beat Kristianstad 26:23 to close in on last-16 berth
Pavlovic makes blistering return from long injury layoff
HC Vardar (MKD) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) 35:30 (20:15)
Vardar reclaimed top spot in group B with a resounding five-goal win in a regional derby against visiting Celje, who gave a good account of themselves in a high-octane clash garnished with an avalanche of goals in the ‘Sport Center Jane Sandanski’.
The result left the Macedonian giants top of the group on 18 points from 12 games, one ahead of German champions Rhein-Neckar Löwen as their battle to finish top of the group, and automatic quarter-final qualification, looks set to go down to the wire.
Vardar pulled away in a high-scoring first half as Alex Dujshebaev and Daniil Shishkarev led the goals charge, scoring 10 between them for a rampant home side who thrived from fast-breaks and incisive passing.
Their gamble to leave an empty goal when in possession for the extra attacking player paid handsome dividends, making it difficult for the visitors to keep up.
Balanced attacking workload
Vardar did enough after the break to stay comfortably in the driving seat, with a balanced workload in attack ensuring a smooth flow of the ball and unstoppable shots on goal from all angles.
Goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik pulled off several superb saves at the other end to keep battling Celje at bay.
The visitors fought hard to stay in touch as Ziga Mlakar enjoyed a fine afternoon with eight goals from nine shots, but he received precious little support from his more fancied teammates.
Borut Mackovsek netted only three goals from nine shots and Blaz Janc scored four from nine, underlining a tough afternoon for the Slovenian side against their more resourceful rivals.
The impressive Dujshebaev led Vardar with eight goals from 10 shots, Russian wingers Timur Dibirov and Shishkarev added six each while Croatian back Igor Karacic chipped in with five.
Statements after the match
Branko Tamse, Coach, RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko: “Vardar deserved to win the game as they managed to keep a 3-4 goal difference and continued with a smart, intelligent game until the end of the match. We arrived here with a knowledge that even stronger teams than ours couldn’t win in Skopje and to be honest, we had will, but just lacked energy. Perhaps we spent our energy last week when we managed a huge comeback against European champions Kielce.”
David Razgor, player, RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko: “Tonight Vardar showed how powerful they are, both tactically and physically. They have roster of 14 high quality players, including the best goalkeeper in the world who did a good job. In those conditions you have to play your perfect game to expect something, which didn’t happen for us. In the opening minutes they took a 4-5 lead and they knew how to keep it.”
Raul Gonzalez, coach, HC Vardar: “Celje have an attractive style of handball which I often enjoy to watch. The first half we started with a 6-0 defence, but it did not work and we switched to 5-1 which then caused mistakes for the visitors and we scored from the counter-attacks. Once we got to 4-5 goals difference at the end of the first half, we managed to hold it during the second. Next week we travel to Brest to play in a game as a final for us.”
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE) 26:23 (13:11)
Written off by most pundits after the opening half of the group stage, Zagreb are now on course to sneak into the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 after Domagoj Pavlovic inspired them to a home win over IFK Kristianstad.
The 23-year old left back returned from a long injury layoff in spectacular fashion, scoring four goals and dishing out a barrage of assists to propel the Croatian champions to a vital win over their Swedish rivals in the battle to avoid an early exit.
The result allowed Zagreb to leapfrog Kristianstad and Celje into sixth position and by the looks of things, the match between the Croatian side and their perennial Slovenian foes in the last round will be a winner-takes-all clash for a berth in the knockout stages.
Zagreb fell behind 2:1 in the early stages before a 4:0 run turned the tide and set the tone for the rest of the match, as the visitors – spearheaded by their outstanding winger Jerry Tollbring – played catch-up for the rest of the contest and were undone by a more prolific home side.
Fits and starts
Both teams played in fits and starts but Zagreb were more consistent in attack as Pavlovic’s effort was complemented by fine displays from Serbian winger Dobrivoje Markovic, line player Igor Vori and Slovenian goalkeeper Matevz Skok.
With the team’s level at 7:7 midway through the first half, Zagreb conjured a three-goal lead after finding another gear before Olafur Gudmundsson slashed the deficit on the stroke of halftime with a thunderbolt from 10 metres.
A brief fightback by Kristianstad midway through the second half again hauled the visitors back on level terms (17:17) before the home side pulled away into a four-goal lead (22:18) as Stipe Mandalinic scored three vital goals in quick succession.
Zagreb held on to their lead with some ease in the closing stages and will head into the last two rounds as favourites to clinch the last remaining spot guaranteeing involvement in the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.
Statements after the match
Silvio Ivandija, coach, HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo: “We managed to stay in control of the match today stopping their fast transition and our 5-1 defence and the great Stevanovic in the second half were keys for our success today. I'd also like to say that Skok had a good match as well as both Cingesar and Vori. It’s an important win but we still have a lot to work on.”
Darko Cingesar, player, HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo: “We slowed them down and that was the most important thing for us today. I'd like to congratulate my team, we've showed will and only thing left to do is work on little things to make our performance better in general.”
Ola Lindgren, coach, IFK Kristianstad: “We were close and had our chances but did not manage to use them. It's always hard to play here in Zagreb and we were well aware of that, but we were hoping to grab at least a point here. The good thing is that we did not lose by a seven-goal margin, keeping our score positive against Zagreb which might end up important in final standings.”
Nebojsa Simic, player, IFK Kristianstad: “The atmosphere was great today I have to say that it was amazing. Zagreb played a good match, their goalies were good and they've managed to reach the win in the end. There still are things to work on; we're responding badly when we have to rebound the ball and take possession with all of our guys already running the counter-attack. That is certainly a thing we'll have to work on as well as scoring from clear chances. We've given our best and lost but we still have a chance to reach the knock-out phase and that is most important in the end.”