|03.03.2017, 19:00||◄ last page|
FEATURE: With Nantes and Montpellier in the group phase knockout, and PSG already qualified, France could have three clubs in the Last 16 for the first time
France aiming for three clubs in the Last 16
“We are among the best twenty clubs in the world. That's it, right? There might be the odd Qatar club but, to me, we are among the best twenty handball clubs on the planet this season.”
This might sound like a bold statement from Thierry Anti, HBC Nantes' coach, but he is rightly full of confidence.
After reaching an EHF Cup Final last season, this season his club has participated for the first time in the VELUX EHF Champions League. They succeeded in winning a ticket to face Naturhouse La Rioja in the group phase knockout, and if they win there, they will proceed to the Last 16 phase.
Nantes aren’t the only French club in this position, though, as Montpellier HB also finished first in their group. They will face Motor Zaporozhye in the group phase knockout. In Group A, Paris Saint-Germain have already secured their own ticket to the Last 16.
This means that there could be three French clubs in the Last 16 phase, something that has never happened before.
“First of all, this is very good for French handball, in terms of exposure. Apart from the Bundesliga and the Liga ASOBAL back in the day, no other league has ever had so many clubs in the Last 16 phase. So it means that we are a league that counts,” notes Anti.
Nantes would enjoy their first Last 16 participation if they qualify. Montpellier on the other hand would enjoy their sixteenth- they also won the trophy itself back in 2003.
Patrice Canayer, Montpellier’s coach, who has been part of every European campaign the club has ever been through, sees only good things for French handball if the three teams were to get through:
“It can only help Montpellier, Nantes or Paris to get better and indirectly, the rest of the French league. To be part of the play-offs was a goal for us, obviously, when you've experienced such emotions in the Champions League, you only want to be a part of it again.”
For both clubs, the first goal will be to join PSG in the Last 16 phase, before thinking of going even further in the competition.
“We don't know where it'll stop, but for now, our participation has been a success, both on and off the court,” says Thierry Anti.
“The sad thing is that we might play against PSG in the Last 16, but we're not there yet. We wanted to avoid Montpellier and we managed to do so by finishing first. Now we'll be taking it one game at a time and enjoying every moment.”
Nantes president, Gael Pelletier, aimed for a quarter-final spot in the forthcoming year. PSG on the other hand has been building a team to win the Champions League for four years now. It's been three seasons since a country had two teams taking part in the FINAL4 in Cologne- Germany had THW Kiel and SG Flensburg-Handewitt in the FINAL4 in the 2013/14 season. Could France experience similar success this year? Only time will tell.
Montpellier HB will face HC Motor Zaporozhye in their first match of the group phase knockout on March 4 (live on ehfTV.com), while HBC Nantes will face Naturhouse La Rioja in their first match of the group phase knockout on March 5 (live on ehfTV.com).
TEXT: Kevin Domas/kc