National Champions of Europe – Men Part 4: Balkans
Part four of the six-part series on national champions of the 2017/18 season focuses on the Balkan region, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, FYR Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Romania.
Zagreb remain on top for the 27th year in a row
Nothing has changed in Croatia: In 2018, Zagreb continued their dominance in both the championship and Cup without any real contender for the title.
With zero defeats and 10 very convincing wins, Zagreb secured what was their 27th consecutive title in the Croatian championship. Nexe tried to surprise them in the Cup final, but Zagreb crushed their opponents’ dreams in the last 15 minutes of the match. Captain Zlatko Horvat lifted the Cup trophy for the 25th time.
Overall, Zagreb had a pretty good season. They won the double crown in Croatia and finished second in the SEHA-Gazprom League. The only thing that did not meet expectations was the result in the VELUX EHF Champions League, where they failed to qualify for Last 16 for the first time in four years.
During the season, Zagreb changed coach, with Zlatko Saracevic replacing Kasim Kamenica at the end of November 2017. However, Saracevic will not continue with the club next season. At the final press conference, club manager Bozidar Jovic announced that Lino Cervar will take over, but they still have only a verbal agreement.
When it comes to the players’ puzzle, Zagreb are undergoing serious reconstruction. Brothers Josip and Tonci Valcic are retiring, as is Igor Vori. Dobrivoje Markovic, David Miklavcic and Domagoj Pavlovic are leaving the club.
New names that have been confirmed so far include Bosnian line player Senjamin Buric, who is coming from HBC Nantes; Slovenian Gregor Potocnik; Serbian Nikola Potic; and Croatians Filip Vistorop and David Mandic. Lovro Jotic is making a comeback to Zagreb after spending a year in Aalborg.
Last-round thriller earns Vojvodina sixth consecutive title
The title defenders survived a last round thriller, with no less than three teams – Vojvodina, Zeleznicar and Partizan – in the race for the title until the very last moment.
In the thrilling season finale, Vojvodina narrowly defeated Partizan in Novi Sad (21:20), while the runners-up and Cup winners Zeleznicar failed to secure the triumph that would have brought an end to their 69-year championship drought.
A win was crucial for all three sides’ title hopes, ensuring a dramatic finish to one of the most exciting championships in recent years.
Vojvodina’s right back Dusan Trifkovic destroyed Partizan’s hopes with a last-gasp winner, while at the same moment, Zeleznicar missed the final opportunity to take a victory against Metaloplastika.
Lovcen celebrate the double
Lovcen have established themselves as the force to be reckoned with domestically, with 2018 bringing their sixth league and ninth Cup triumphs.
However, it was not as easy as some might have predicted. The Cup defenders and newly crowned champions endured many challenges this season, having only just made their way to the Cup final, but were able to stay focused until the very end of the season to earn their plaudits.
Left back Vuk Latkovic and right wing Drasko Kaludjerovic were the brightest stars in Lovcen’s success, as the duo authoritatively led the way through the successful campaign.
Izvidjac reclaim the title
After the women’s team surprised all with a Cup win, another title came to Ljubuski: Izvidjac lifted the elusive league trophy again after Borac did it last year.
Izvidjac celebrated their sixth league title following a penultimate round victory against the relegated Kakanj, while runners-up Vogosca failed to secure a vital win at Zivinice that would have kept them in the race.
Meanwhile, last season’s champions RK Borac celebrated their sixth Cup title.
Third straight title for Dinamo Bucuresti
The ‘Red Dogs’ won their third consecutive title in Romania after the most exciting final ever in the history of the competition.
Ranked as low as eighth in the first part of the season, Dinamo ended the regular season in third place and cruised past Dobrogea Sud Constanta and Potaissa Turda in the first part of the play-offs.
Dinamo played their bitter rivals, CSA Steaua, in a do-or-die best-of-three final, which saw the roaring crowds go wild in all three games.
The champions won the first game after a penalty shootout, only to lose their home advantage in the second game. When wing Hugo Descat failed to convert a one-on-one chance in the dying seconds, CSA Steaua took a 27:26 victory.
The decisive match was played on Steaua’s court, with the hosts opening a 9:4 gap after 20 minutes. But a heroic performance from goalkeeper Saied Heidaridad, who tallied 23 saves, helped Dinamo edge their rivals, 22:19.
Vardar’s dominance continues
After the sensational VELUX EHF Champions League victory last year, Vardar’s focus this season was on defending the title in Cologne. The Macedonian side failed to achieve this goal, finishing fourth, but raised the trophy in the domestic championship soon after the FINAL4.
Vardar joined the Macedonian championship in the play-off series and were unstoppable, recording 10 victories in 10 matches played. The last one was against the well-known opponents Metalurg, with coach Raul Gonzalez’s squad easily winning 33:23 to claim their 12th title in the Macedonian league.
There was no serious contender for Vardar in the Macedonian Cup either. After defeating Metalurg 30:26, Vardar won their 13th Cup and became the first team with five consecutives trophies – making them the most successful team in the Macedonian Cup competition.
Earlier in the season, Vardar finished on top of the SEHA-Gazprom League winners’ podium, for the fourth time.
Fifth consecutive title for Besa FamGas
In Kosovo, the defending champions Besa FamGas copied last year’s achievement and won the championship once more.
Throughout the season, the team led by Arben Muqolli were dominant, losing only one match during the entire championship. In the play-off finals, the battle for first position on the podium was against their biggest contender for the title – Prishtina.
However, the champions had an easy task in both matches. At home, Besa FamGas won the first clash 37:23. In the second away game, they led Egzon Gjuka by 11 goals, ultimately taking a 34:28 victory, which brought the club their fifth consecutive title.
In total, Besa have 14 titles in this competition. The team also won the national Cup earlier in the year, confirming their dominance in Kosovan handball.