|06.03.2017, 17:00||◄ last page|
TALKING POINTS: Stumbling favourites and other surprises have left us with a lot of questions after the weekend. Now let's look for some answers.
Things we know after the penultimate round
Has complacency kicked in? Or have other issues been in the way for top teams like Vardar, Kielce and Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the penultimate round of the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase?
Let's have a look at what happened last weekend, and throw some light on the final round this week.
Favourites fall in Group B
Celje's heroics in Mannheim on Friday were welcomed by Group B leaders Vardar as well as Kielce, lurking on the third place.
The unexpected Rhein-Neckar Löwen defeat in Slovenia (37:31) could have cost the German champions dearly with a possible slide to third place ahead of the final round, without a chance of challenging for the top spot in the group.
But only if Vardar and Kielce were able to capitalise on the Germans' slip…
In a rather peculiar twist, towering Brest right back Dainis Kristopans put in an eight-goal clinic to see his future club Vardar getting defeated 35:30, while the home crowd support in Sweden inspired Kristianstad to a 29:25 triumph against title defenders Kielce.
Therefore, the Group B teams go into the ultimate round with the standings largely unchanged: Vardar remain top with 18 points, while the tightly-contested chasing pack consists of Rhein-Neckar Löwen (17), Kielce (16), and Szeged (15), which closed in on the defending champions after Zsolt Balogh and Jonas Källman excelled in the 26:21 victory against Zagreb.
Celje’s home fortress
The Slovenian team were nothing short of amazing at their Zlatorog Arena of late. Boosted by the loud cheers of their fans, Branko Tamse's team seem to have struck the winning formula against virtually any side. They are now only a point away from securing the Last 16 berth.
First, they were lethal in the dying seconds of the previous round when left wing Luka Zvizej shot through the heart of the defending champions Kielce (34:33), and then came the awe-inspiring triumph against Rhein-Neckar Löwen (37:31).
The biggest credits, however, go to coach Tamse as the form of his stars is on the rise of late. The towering left back and nine-goal hero Borut Mackovsek seems much more of a complete player compared to the promising shooter he was when he arrived to Celje this summer.
Meanwhile, Celje's biggest talent Blaz Janc seems to make it his mission to have a memorable farewell season at the club. Janc scored eight goals, similar to playmaker Miha Zarabec, adding to the pair's consistency this season in the VELUX EHF Champions League.
Barca and PSG enter must-win mode
What may or may not have been Barcelona's slip made the spotlight turn towards the 'straightforward' Group A again. Their 27:27 draw at Kiel brought the excitement back into the group, where Barcelona and PSG are now separated by only a single point.
After an equal contest against Kiel which could have gone either way, Barca are still hanging on to the first place with 23 points. Trailing the Spanish side by only one point and one goal, PSG were convincing at Plock (29:25) to grant them a chance to take over the pole position in the ultimate round.
Although both teams play their deciding ties at home, it won't be straightforward for either of them.
Barcelona welcome Wisla, the valiant Polish side which are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to the sixth position. Considering their Last 16 berth rivals Silkeborg are playing at home against outsiders Kadetten, Wisla will do their utmost to make Barca’s life difficult at Palau Blaugrana.
PSG are welcoming THW Kiel at Stade Pierre de Coubertin/Halle Georges Carpentier (whichever way you prefer), hoping for Noka Serdarusic, Nikola Karabatic and Thierry Omeyer to produce magic against their former club, and grant them the prestigious top place in the group.
TEXT: Nemanja Savic / ew