FEATURE: Vardar celebrate history, PSG and Veszprém face quarter-final tests, and for the first time ever, only one German will take the court in Cologne.
Things we know after the quarter-finals
As the season arrives at the moment of reckoning when the four best teams vie for glory in Cologne, the VELUX EHF Champions League 2016/17 is best summed up by the Greek philosopher Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.”
The more we contemplate, the more we read between the lines, the states and the statements, the less we know of what really awaits us in Cologne. But one thing is certain – we are in for the best 240 minutes of handball this season.
So, congratulations Vardar, Veszprém, Barcelona and PSG – make your fans proud!
Vardar see pay off as they make history
On a night to remember in Skopje, HC Vardar made it to their first VELUX EHF FINAL4. The fact that they defeated Flensburg (35:27) was also symbolic, as the Macedonian side were the first to draw blood against the German teams – but more on that later.
Vardar made it to the pinnacle event following three failed quarter-final attempts in succession, and everyone associated with the club is already contemplating what may come next as they paint Cologne red and black.
This was a turbulent but rewarding year for Vardar, whose success is historic for several reasons.
Along with the men’s team, the women’s side will also be part of the season finale – for the fourth consecutive time. It is the first time ever that both the men’s and women’s squads from one club made it to the FINAL4 in the same year.
Vardar’s women’s team were guided to the event in Budapest by their third coach this season, Irina Dibirova, whose husband Timur Dibirov will also don Vardar’s crest on court in Cologne.
Should the Macedonian powerhouse lift the trophy in Cologne, right wing Ivan Cupic will write his name into the history books as the first player to win back-to-back VELUX EHF Champions League trophies in the new format.
Furthermore, there has been only one VELUX EHF FINAL4 without a member of the Dujshebaev family among the participants. While Kielce coach Talant will not partake this year, his son Alex will, for the first time.
The first FINAL4 without a German team
PSG’s legendary left wing and top scorer of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2016/17 (106 goals), Uwe Gensheimer, will be the sole German handball player on court in Cologne after both THW Kiel and Flensburg failed to qualify.
It is also the first time no German team has made the FINAL4 since its introduction in 2010.
FC Barcelona Lassa proved Kiel’s nemesis again. The Spanish giants eliminated the German powerhouse with a 23:18 victory in the second leg, after losing the first match away.
Prior to their elimination on Saturday, Kiel had been successful in every two-leg knock-out phase where they won the first match – a total of 21 times before.
Just like in 2011, when Kiel last missed out on the pinnacle event, Barcelona were the side to claim their place in Cologne – and went on to lift the VELUX EHF FINAL4 trophy.
No team has made more VELUX EHF FINAL4 appearances than THW Kiel. The German side have made it to Cologne six times, and were triumphant twice. Kiel failed to secure the berth on only two occasions, in 2011 and 2017.
Tests of character for PSG and Veszprém
Hungarian powerhouse Veszprém are regulars in Cologne, having made it to the season’s final destination for four consecutive years. However, spirited Montpellier made them work hard for this year’s FINAL4 ticket.
The French club had a valiant opening to the second-leg quarter-final, which saw them craft a 15:11 lead by half-time – a difference that would have seen them through if Mirko Alilovic and Aron Palmarsson had not displayed class and character to upstage the home team in a thrilling finish.
The comfortable 30:25 in the end saw Veszprém qualify for their fourth VELUX EHF FINAL4 – two more than PSG, who were also give a run for their money in the quarter-finals, by a spirited Hungarian team.
Szeged tried every trick in the book to topple the star-studded French team, after travelling to Paris with a three-goal deficit.
Last year’s FINAL4 debutants PSG were uncertain up until the 40-minute mark, when they finally managed to lower the dangerous four-goal gap maintained by Juan Carlos Pastor’s team.
Despite a heroic eight-goal performance from Szeged’s Zsolt Balogh, PSG battled out a draw in the last 20 minutes and sealed the VELUX EHF FINAL4 berth for the second time in a row.
TEXT: Nemanja Savic / cg