|21.03.2017, 23:26||◄ last page|
FEATURE: As the knockout stage looms, we take a look at how last year’s FINAL4 participants fell in our rankings, while PSG overtook Barca
PSG leapfrog Barcelona to top our Power Rankings
There is no more room for slip-ups, and an off-day for even the best teams of the competition could result in elimination. Before we enter the most thrilling part of the season, let’s take a look at how our correspondents at ehfcl.com saw the group stage.
10. HC Meshkov Brest
The Belorussian outfit may be the youngest team in the knockout stage (Meshkov was founded in 2002) but Sergey Bebeshko’s men proved it wasn’t a blind man hitting the mark perchance last year when Brest made it to the Last 16.
Meshkov showed they meant business in the group stage when they defeated heavyweights such as HC Vardar, MOL-Pick Szeged and Rhein-Neckar Löwen. The offensive power of Brest is lethal, with Latvian giant Dainis Kristopans, Vladislav Ostrushko and Moorchegani Iman Jamali while their talismanic leader, Rastko Stojkovic, proved he is still one of the game’s best line players at 36.
Last year’s champions Vive Kielce knocked them out but the fact they scored no less than 58 goals against the Polish powerhouse sends a warning to this year’s opponent, Flensburg.
9. THW Kiel
It is unusual for a regular FINAL4 participant to be found this low in the Power Rankings, however their position is not unfounded. Kiel finished fifth in Group A with seven defeats- the most they suffered in a single season in the last decade.
It is even more shocking that the North German powerhouse finished with a -23 goal difference. This is mostly due to the fact that Kiel scored the fewest number of goals in the entire group (17 less than last placed Schaffhausen).
Injury of key players played a role in Kiel’s roller coaster ride, which within a single fortnight was marked by the high of beating PSG and the low of losing to Silkeborg.
However, Kiel are not out of the race for the trophy. These battle-hardened veterans, Domagoj Duvnjak, Marko Vujin, Niclas Ekberg and Patrick Wiencek usually come up with their best when the stakes are high.
8. Rhein-Neckar Löwen
Could you figure out the Löwen this season? If you could, you know handball better than us at ehfcl.com.
There were times when they were kings of the jungle as they managed to win in Kielce and Skopje (home court of the group runners-up, and winners, respectively). But sometimes they appeared as startled cubs, rather than lions.
Rhein-Neckar are definitely a force to be reckoned with, but they are a team who can beat -and be beaten by- any opponent. Therefore it is extremely hard to predict how they will perform in the knockout stage.
Andre Schmid, arguably the best playmaker of the season, could have done with the support of other teammates. However, apart from ex-Barcelona winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson, the other players were just like the Löwen as a whole: inconsistent.
7. MOL-Pick Szeged
Who would have thought that Juan Carlos Pastor needed just a few months to build such a great team of 13 newcomers? Well, those who know the pedigree of the Spanish mastermind are certainly not surprised.
Attacks are easy to put together, especially when you have a talented bunch of players. However, Pastor focused on defence- you would expect nothing less from a true ambassador of Spanish handball. The facts speak for themselves: Szeged conceded fewer goals than any other team in Group A or Group B.
What’s more, Szeged are no longer a team that is only dangerous at home. The Hungarian runners-up won in Zagreb, Celje and at Rhein-Neckar Löwen, too. Needless to say, they enter their clash with Silkeborg as favourites.
6. SG Flensburg-Handewitt
The 2014 champions have embarked on their last adventure under the guidance of Ljubo Vranjes, as their coach is heading to Hungary after the current season.
There’s a feeling that Flensburg could have done much better in Group B if their handball philosophy was more successful against Eastern European sides (many of which are Spanish influenced). Vranjes’s team did not cause major upsets in Group A as they remained winless against the sides who finished above them. Indeed, they only salvaged a single point against Veszprém at home.
The interplay between Flensburg’s Danish and Swedish players was made even more fluent by French playmaker Kentin Mahé, who was the team’s top scorer.
Brest seems to be an ideal opponent for Flensburg, but it’s their possible quarter-final against Vardar that excites everyone. Remember 2014?
5. KS Vive Tauron Kielce
Last year Kielce executed one of the most remarkable comebacks in handball history in last year’s final. The defending champions start their quest of retaining the title from a fairly good position. Kielce finished as runners-up in Group B, however, their five defeats seem too many in a group that did not feature heavyweights such as Barcelona, PSG or Veszprém.
Talant Dujshebaev had problems with his side’s defence as only two teams who qualified for the knockout rounds conceded more goals than the Polish powerhouse. However, Kielce’s old guard raised the flag high: Polish marksmen Karol Bielecki and Krzysztof Lijewski and Spanish superstar Julen Aguinagalde led the way.
We don’t want to jump the gun just yet, but the possibility of a Kielce vs Veszprém quarter-final is mouth-watering.
4. HC Vardar
The Macedonian giants have not spent that much time on top of Group B, but they emerged as winners due to their great record against top sides in the group.
Vardar only lost once at home (the highpoint of Löwen’s roller-coaster ride), which they made up for by winning in Mannheim -they also beat Kielce and Szeged. Quite surprisingly, it was the weaker sides that made life harder for the Macedonians: their defeats in Brest and Zagreb could have cost them first place, but Raul González’s men held on and deservedly sealed their place in the quarter-finals.
With the third-best goal difference (+34) and strong performances at home, Vardar look set to make their first journey to Cologne.
3. Telekom Veszprém
It has been a troubled season for Xavi Sabaté’s team. They could rarely take their strongest line-up to the court, yet EHF’s correspondents still have not lost their collective faith in the Hungarian giants.
Veszprém not only lost twice at home (to wave goodbye to their almost two-year long unbeaten run at home) but also lost their duel with Szeged in the domestic championship, which raised serious questions about the team’s usual status as a strong contender in all competitions.
However, now the injuries are more or less gone, and Veszprém managed to hold on to third spot in Group 1 by beating Kiel away and Flensburg at home.
The notorious Veszprém defence and the backline of Laszlo Nagy, Aron Palmarsson and Momir Ilic can keep the dreams of their fans alive. If they knock out Zagreb, Veszprém will most likely have a chance to exact their revenge on Kielce, who beat them for the title last year.
2. FC Barcelona Lassa
Let us tell you a little secret: not one of EHF’s correspondents picked Barcelona -who finished on top of the strongest group the EHF Champions League has ever seen- as the top team. Even Veszprém got two top nominations despite the Catalan giants beating the Hungarian side home and away.
This, obviously, does not mean that Barcelona are not a top side. Xavi Pasqual has an excellent mix of adept veterans such as top scorer Kiril Lazarov, Jesper Brian Nöddesbo and Victor Thomas- and youngsters like Lasse Andersson and Dika Mem. Barcelona conceded the second fewest number of goals and were one of the four teams who managed to score more than 400 goals this season.
Their excellent defence is built around the genius of Gonzalo Perez de Vargas, and the Catalan wall will be a tough nut to crack for all opponents.
1. Paris Saint-Germian Handball
The defeat in Kiel in the first round may have cost Le Parisien the top spot in Group A, but PSG did provide the best handball of the Group Phase.
The defeat against Kiel in the first round was a huge blow as the fight for the top spot became increasingly difficult. But this hiccup was followed by seven wins in a row, including winning both ties against Veszprém, and a huge home triumph against Barcelona.
The best young player of the season, Nedim Remili, fit in well with such household names as Mikkel Hansen, Nikola Karabatic and Luc Abalo. Meanwhile, new signing Uwe Gensheimer delivered big time: the German winger finished as top scorer for his team.
PSG have everything that it takes to finally make it to the final of the competition. Their clash with domestic rivals Nantes could be followed by a quarter-final against Silkeborg or Szeged- which should make for an easy ride to Cologne.
TEXT: Bence Mártha/kc