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09.03.2017, 23:40◄ last page     

GROUP B REVIEW: The Croatian title holders have one foot in the knockout phase after a tense home win over their Slovenian rivals in a potentially winner-take-all clash.

Ironclad Zagreb on the brink of Last 16 after beating Celje

Zagreb did their job by squeezing past Celje to earn a better head-to-head record and move into sixth position as both sides are level on nine points from 14 games.

The Croatian champions will learn their fate after Sunday’s match between group leaders Vardar and bottom team IFK Kristianstad, who need at least a draw in Skopje to nose ahead of both Zagreb and Celje.

  • Zagreb leapfrog Celje due to away goals after a titanic tussle
  • Kristianstad can edge into Last 16 if they avoid defeat at Vardar
  • Zagreb dominated three quarters of a physical encounter
  • Late and valiant Celje fightback fell tantalisingly short

Group B       

HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) 23:21 (14:10)

Croatian champions HC PPD Zagreb are a whisker away from reaching the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout rounds after beating Slovenia’s RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko in a fascinating if unspectacular clash with a Last 16 berth at stake.

Needing to win by two goals or more to jump into the driving seat for a spot in the next round, Zagreb achieved their objective in the most dramatic fashion after they nearly threw away an eight-goal lead.

Having done their job, Zagreb will now sweat on the outcome of Sunday’s clash between Macedonian giants Vardar and Swedish side IFK Kristianstad, with the Scandinavians able to force a final twist if they avoid defeat in Skopje.

The Balkan derby in the Zagreb Arena delivered everything one might have expected from a game with so much at stake.

It was also spiced up by the presence of Zagreb’s former coach Veselin Vujovic, with the Montenegrin - now in charge of the Slovenian national team - watching from the stands.

His attendance was particularly noteworthy for the fact that he led Slovenia to the bronze medal at the recent world championship after they overcame a massive deficit to beat Croatia in the third-place match.

At club level, Celje came agonisingly close to emulating that feat in the Zagreb Arena’s fervent atmosphere.

“We had to work extremely hard for this win but the celebrations are on hold until the end of the Vardar vs Kristianstad match,” Zagreb coach Silvijo Ivandija told a news conference after the thriller.

“We let Celje back into the match but clawed out the victory thanks to great fan support in the last 10 minutes. Playing in such an atmosphere is a very special feeling,” he said.

Zagreb stated their determination by taking a 4:1 lead thanks to rugged defending which ground to a halt Celje’s normally free-flowing attack.

Borut Mackovsek fired on all cylinders for Celje, having scored five first-half goals for the visitors, but his heroic solo efforts were undone by a more balanced Zagreb attack.

Evergreen winger Zlatko Horvat received perfect support from backs Stipe Mandalinic and Slovenian David Miklavcic, who put in a gritty performance against his compatriots.

Having endured eight-minute scoreless spell in both halves, Celje looked out for the count after Zagreb hit the ground running after the break, with their lead soaring to 18:11 and then 21:13 in front of a jubilant home crowd.

Celje then engineered their best spell of the match and slashed the gap to just one goal (21:20), which forced a dramatic last five minutes after Zagreb had lost their overall advantage.

Mandalinic broke the home side’s 11-minute scoreless run to put them back in the driving seat and with Zagreb able to hold on to the ball in the last 45 seconds, a frustrated Celje side could only rue costly lapses in concentration which put the Croatian side in a commanding position to reach the Last 16.

Horvat, Mandalinic and Pavlovic highlighted Zagreb’s collective effort with five goals each, while Mackovsek and Blaz Janc stood out for Celje with six each.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor

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