|02.03.2017, 12:35||◄ last page|
GROUP B PREVIEW: All eight teams in the group have everything to play for in the last two rounds, as the top three are battling for an automatic quarter-final spot while the bottom three are vying for a berth in the Last 16
Home stretch offers plenty of excitement
The last two rounds of the VELUX EHF Champions League in Group B are likely to produce a plethora of nail-biting games, with most of the rival teams aiming for either automatic quarter-final qualification or a berth in the Last 16.
Vardar, Rhein-Neckar Löwen and reigning champions Kielce, the top three in the group who are separated by only two points, will start as strong favourites against their respective opponents, although they all face tricky away games.
Meshkov Brest and MOL-Pick Szeged are involved in a fourth-place dogfight, the place which potentially offers easier opposition in the Last 16.
RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)
Having stunned defending champions Kielce on home court in Round 11, Slovenia’s RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko now need to repeat a similar feat against German title holders Rhein-Neckar Löwen if they are to keep alive their hopes of reaching the knockout stages.
Celje are seventh in the standings with seven points from 12 games, level with HC PPD Zagreb whom they visit in the last round. Celje won the reverse fixture 30:28, meaning that only a win or a draw in the Zagreb Arena is likely to send them through.
Mannheim’s Lions, on the other hand, are second -a point behind leaders Vardar- as the two teams continue a three-way battle alongside Kielce for the group’s top spot.
The prize is an automatic quarter-final berth and hence Rhein-Neckar Löwen have no room for error against Celje in order to stay in the hunt for the group’s top prize.
The German side will feel they need to improve on last week’s patchy performance in a rather fortuitous 25:24 home win over Meshkov Brest, when Andy Schmid and Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson scored seven goals each to lift their team to victory.
Celje played well in the 35:30 defeat at Vardar but will need to shore up their porous defence if they are to match Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s quick transition and free-flowing ball movement.
Löwen have an overwhelming advantage in the head-to-head record between the two teams, having won seven of their eight fixtures. But Celje prevailed in the most recent one, beating their rivals 32:28 on home court in November 2014.
MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs HC PPD Zagreb (CRO)
Szeged are clear favourites to win their home game against Zagreb, even though there is much more at stake for the Croatian side in this intriguing encounter.
While Szeged are vying for a likely fourth-place finish, the place which could yield somewhat easier opposition in the Last 16, Zagreb desperately need to avoid defeat in order to gain some sort of advantage over Celje ahead of their winner-takes-all clash in the last round.
With Celje holding the edge over Zagreb thanks to a 30:28 home win in the opening round, the Croatian champions will need a three-goal win over their Slovenian rivals if they head into the clash two points behind them.
Should they be a point behind or level as they are at present, with seven points each, any win will do for the Croatians. Nosing ahead of Celje on points will mean that Zagreb will only need a draw to finish sixth – provided that bottom team IFK Kristianstad fail to spring a stunning upset either at home to Kielce or away to Vardar in the last round.
The mind-boggling combinations at both ends of the table mean that all teams have to go for wins in the last two round. Szeged also have pride to play for, although they no longer have even a theoretical chance of winning the group.
Zagreb will be buoyed by their comfortable 26:23 home win over Kristianstad in the previous round, while Szeged are smarting from a 28:24 defeat at Kielce after losing a 14:13 first-half lead.
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
IFK Kristianstad are clutching at straws in their quest to reach the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time and the match against Kielce is their last chance to stay in contention for a Last16 berth.
They are very unlikely to avoid an early exit though, as a win over the defending champions would accomplish only a half of the mammoth task they face in their bid to avoid an early exit.
As if beating Kielce is not big enough a mountain to climb, IFK will, in all likelihood, also need to defeat Vardar away in their last match- and even that may not be enough to finish sixth.
Should either Zagreb or Celje win both their remaining fixtures, Kristianstad will fail to qualify no matter what they do, because they will finish seventh in the group at best.
The fact that Kielce too desperately need the two points to stay in the hunt for the group’s top spot makes IFK’s task even more difficult.
The Polish side showed ample resilience in last weekend’s 28:24 home win over Szeged, having fought back from a 14:13 half-time deficit, after a shock defeat at Celje in the previous round.
The Polish giants will again bank on the devastating form of their versatile Spanish line player Julen Aguinagalde, who led the charge against Szeged as top-scorer with eight goals.
Kristianstad’s hopes rest on the proficiency of their exciting young winger Jerry Tollbring, who will need all the back-court support he can get from Olafur Gudmundsson and Albin Lagergren.
Meshkov Brest (BLR) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
The visit to Belarus is a tricky one for group leaders Vardar, who will be asked to overcome a spirited home side and their fervent fans if they are to stay top of the group.
Many of Europe’s trophy-laden giants have struggled against Meshkov in their Brest fortress and the star-studded Macedonian side are also likely to face a stern test of their credentials.
With Rhein-Neckar Löwen and Kielce hot on their heels, only a win will do for Vardar ahead of the last round of the competition’s compelling group stage.
Vardar’s free-flowing attack will need to keep firing on all cylinders against a rugged Meshkov defence, like it did in the previous round’s 35:30 home win over Celje when Alex Dujshebaev netted eight goals while Timur Dibiriov and Daniil Shishkarev added six each.
Known for their physical approach at both ends of the court, Meshkov will bank on the raw strength of their Serbian line player Rastko Stojkovic and towering Latvian right back Dainis Kristopans.
Meshkov’s outstanding goalkeeper Ivan Pesic faces a tough personal battle with Vardar’s even more impressive shot-stopper Arpad Sterbik, who has played a huge part in propelling the Macedonian outfit to the top of the section.
Either way, the contest is likely to keep the fans on the edge of their seats with Meshkov playing for glory as well as a potential fourth-place finish in what has turned out to be a fiercely competitive group.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic/kc