|26.04.2017, 16:50||◄ last page|
QUARTER-FINAL PREVIEW: The Macedonian side start with a two-goal advantage on home ground against Flensburg - but the German side are full of confidence too.
Vardar look to emulate their women and grab a FINAL4 spot
HC Vardar hope to banish memories of three consecutive quarter-final defeats by booking their place in the 2016/17 VELUX EHF FINAL4. They host SG Flensburg-Handewitt on Thursday, and hold a two-goal advantage over the German side from the first leg.
QUARTER-FINAL, SECOND LEG
Vardar Skopje (MKD) vs SG Flensburg-Handewitt (GER)
It will be Flensburg's 250th European Cup match, and one of their most important ones, but two families will be the focus of the game in Vardar - the Dibirovs and the Dujshebaevs.
Russian wing Timur Dibirov has the chance to emulate his wife Irina, who this season has coached the Vardar women's team to the TIPPMIX EHF FINAL4 in Budapest. They are now within 60 minutes of becoming the first husband and wife pairing to be part of the two EHF FINAL4 events in the same year.
Timur's teammate Alex Dujshebaev can continue the story of family success. His father Talant was part of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 tournaments in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2015 and 2016, coaching three different teams over the years (Ciudad Real, Atletico Madrid, Kielce). Now his son, who will join his father at Kielce from next season, has the chance to make his Cologne debut.
Vardar aiming for history
The team of Spanish-born coach Raul Gonzalez can make history, as the first Macedonian side to qualify for the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
Vardar have fallen at the quarter-final stage three consecutive times - in 2014 against Flensburg, 2015 against Kielce, and 2016 against Veszprem. The closest of those losses was against Thursday’s opponent, when in 2014 Flensburg triumphed on away goals to qualify for Cologne.
Therefore Gonzalez is humble ahead of the second leg, despite the expected frenetic support of 5,000 in the Jane Sandanski Arena.
"We have to forget the first leg and mainly have to forget the result of that match. We have to be aware of the fast Flensburg match play, and we have to hope that our goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik shows another excellent performance, like in the first leg.
"Nothing is decided yet. We cannot play on a certain result, we have to play to win."
On the other hand, Flensburg’s team captain Tobias Karlsson is confident of turning the tide and booking a ticket to the LANXESS arena.
"To play at Skopje is always a challenge, but even more so under the current circumstances. We will play better than in the first half of the first leg."
After 30 minutes of the first leg, Vardar were ahead by 15:9 and clearly dominant, but after the break Flensburg matched the Macedonian side.
"Mainly we have to focus on Vardar's brilliant playmaker Luka Cindric. If we can stop his ways, we have a chance. Two goals mean nothing in modern handball," says SG coach Ljubomir Vranjes, who is in the final weeks of an 11-year stay at Flensburg which has seen him be a player, manager and coach for the German side. He will leave to coach Veszprem next season.
He knows that even on home ground, Vardar are not unbeatable. The only home match they have lost this season was against a German team, as Rhein-Neckar Löwen conquered their fortress by 29:26. The same scoreline on Thursday would see Flensburg through to the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
History favours Vardar
The statistics are in favour of Vardar. In 28 previous quarter-final pairings since the implementation of the current format in the 2009/10 season, only seven times has a team overcome a defeat in the first leg and qualified for Cologne.
Even more worrying for Flensburg, only once has a team managed to do so after they had lost the first leg at home, with Rhein-Neckar Löwen overcoming Montpellier in 2011.
Some comfort for Flensburg is that in six of their 12 Champions League participations they have turned a first leg defeat into qualification for the next round in the knockout stages. The biggest deficit they have reversed is a 10-goal disadvantage, against Celje in the 2006/07 Last 16.
TEXT: Björn Pazen / ap