INTERVIEW: Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s Hendrik Pekeler hopes his team have learnt from their unexpected elimination last year and will not make the same mistakes again – but knows the one-goal cushion after the first leg is nothing against THW Kiel.
Pekeler: "A one-goal lead means nothing in handball"
In summer 2018, the circle will be completed for Hendrik Pekeler when the 25-year-old line player returns to the club where it all started: THW Kiel. As an 18-year-old he had his Bundesliga debut for the ‘Zebras’ in 2009, then joined the German sides Bergischer HC and TBV Lemgo before making the huge step to Rhein-Neckar Löwen in 2015.
In the meantime, the two-metre defence specialist became a German international. In 2016, he crowned his international career with a gold medal at the EHF EURO in Poland and the bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games.
In 2016, Pekeler also became German champion for the first time, and now hopes to make it to his first ever quarter-final in the VELUX EHF Champions League, after Löwen were surprisingly eliminated by Zagreb last season. The Last 16 matches are something very special for Pekeler, as he faces his former and upcoming club Kiel, which he will re-join next summer.
On Thursday, Pekeler and the ‘Lions’ host the Zebras, after winning the first leg at Kiel 25:24. In this interview with ehfCL.com, Pekeler (who was born close to Kiel) talks about the upcoming task and his dream of making it to Cologne.
ehfCL.com: How special are matches against THW Kiel for you?
Hendrik Pekeler: It was already something special before, as I was a player for Kiel, and now it is even more special as I will return to Kiel next summer. I would have loved to avoid those Last 16 clashes with them, but we were too reckless to win our last two group matches to get a better passage for the knock-out stage.
ehfCL.com: You beat Kiel by a one-goal margin. Are you satisfied with the outcome prior to the second leg?
Hendrik Pekeler: Before the match, I would have absolutely agreed that a one-goal win at Kiel would be a perfect result. But after the match I feel like the ‘moral loser’. We were leading by six goals intermediately and we could have won by a much clearer result than 25:24. So the outcome of the first leg has no significance for our home match on Thursday anymore. A +1 lead means nothing in handball.
ehfCL.com: One year ago, the situation was the same after a 24:23 away win at Zagreb, but then Löwen lost 29:31 at home. Are those memories a warning signal for you and your teammates?
Hendrik Pekeler: Indeed! I hope that we have learnt our lesson. Maybe we felt too secure and did not take Zagreb seriously enough in the home match – but this will definitely not happen when we face Kiel. You can never underestimate them. This will not happen again.
ehfCL.com: In the last six matches in all competitions against Kiel, Löwen only lost once. Is this a psychological advantage for your side?
Hendrik Pekeler: We know that we can beat them again, but in knock-out matches anything can happen. I do not care about previous matches and statistics, as only the here and now counts. One important fact is whether Andy Schmid will be fit after his injury in the Bundesliga match against Lemgo on Saturday.
ehfCL.com: Löwen are still part of three competitions – VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16, German Cup Semi-final and third-ranked in Bundesliga. Do you have a priority list?
Hendrik Pekeler: The next match, regardless of the competition, is always the most important. On Thursday, it is Champions League, then we have an important Bundesliga match against Leipzig before we play the cup semi-final against Flensburg. It is true, crunch time has started.
ehfCL.com: The German team that proceeds from your Last 16 draw will face FC Barcelona in the quarter-finals. Does that create extra motivation to clinch the berth?
Hendrik Pekeler: Not at the moment. First, it is Kiel that counts. If we manage to proceed then we focus on the quarter-finals. Personally, I don’t care about any potential opponent.
ehfCL.com: Even further on, there’s the chance to make it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne in June. You never played at this tournament…
Hendrik Pekeler: I have not even been there as a spectator. But funnily enough, I just talked with my teammate Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson about Cologne, as he has been there several times with different clubs. He fully praises the FINAL4, saying: ‘You cannot imagine what to expect and experience there, and how much the EHF invest in this event to create this special atmosphere.’ So, being part of the FINAL4 is definitely one of my major personal goals.
TEXT: Bjorn Pazen / cg