There was little to no surprise when HBC Nantes and Montpellier HB snatched wins in their away games in the VELUX EHF Champions League Elimination Round C+D Play-offs.
Both French teams impressed in the group phase and carried their form into the next stage to find themselves overwhelming Last 16 favourites ahead of the second-leg play-off clashes.
For Montpellier it would be the third straight year in the Last 16 phase, while Nantes would continue their dream maiden season.
• Motor were riding a six-game winning streak, but had no answer for Montpellier’s pace in the first leg
• Nantes are carrying a six-goal lead into the second leg against Naturhouse La Rioja, and have recorded only one loss this season – against Motor
• Montpellier successfully protected their home court in the group stage, with five wins out of five games
ELIMINATION ROUND C+D Montpellier HB (FRA) vs HC Motor Zaporozhye (UKR) (First leg 36:34)
Saturday 11 March, 17:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com
A 36:34 win in the first leg in Ukraine was more than enough for Montpellier to become a hot favourite for a Last 16 berth, which would be their third in as many years.
In the first leg the French side enjoyed their third best offensive performance in VELUX EHF Champions League history, while Motor had no weapons to resist as Patrice Canayer’s team fired from all cylinders.
“We were disappointing in defence. We worked a lot and we were good in attack, but it was not enough. Now we are focusing on the second leg and we are already thinking about a three-goal win,” said Motor right back Sergey Shelmenko, with Zakhar Denysov adding:
“They were leading by four goals, but we managed to cut the gap to only two. Therefore, I think we have our chance. They are a very good team, but they had their share of trouble.
“We did not expect them to play so fast, but now we are prepared for everything and I think we can cause an upset,” concluded the left wing.
The Ukrainian side entered the first-leg play-off on the back of a six-game winning streak, including an impressive away victory against Nantes, 34:32 – the only upset for the French side this season.
But Motor will have their work cut out for them against in-form Montpellier, who reclaimed third place in their domestic league with an impressive 33:25 win against St. Raphael.
Jure Dolenec and Ludovic Fabregas were Montpellier’s best scorers and the French side will rely on them in Saturday’s game, while Lithuanian Jonas Truchanovicius contributed eight goals in the first game against Motor and will be a joker in Patrice Canayer’s pack.
HBC Nantes (FRA) vs Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) (First leg 31:25)
Saturday 11 March, 20:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com
Following the six-goal away win in Logrono, Nantes are the heavy favourites to advance to the Last 16. As the French team are playing in the VELUX EHF Champions League for the first time, reaching the next stage would be a remarkable achievement.
It appeared La Rioja may have reached the edge of their capabilities in the first leg in Logrono, as fans applauded what might have been the farewell to European competitions this season.
La Rioja had the upper hand until the last quarter of the game when they were overrun by Nantes on counter attacks, as the French team confirmed their strength by scoring 15 goals in the last 20 minutes.
Coach Thierry Anti praised his team following the win in Spain, but is cautious before the second leg: “It is a great satisfaction, a very good result that gives us an advantage before the return game. However, caution – nothing is done!”
His counterpart Jota Gonzalez stays realistic and is aware what awaits his team.
"It is a very, very, very difficult situation for us. We will play the match, and we will see."
Nantes seem to have everything in their own hands, but the European scene has recently proven – the biggest comebacks come when you least expect them.