Red alert for Hungarian hopes
While the two VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 re-matches on Saturday, including the Match of the Week in Veszprém, could potentially see history made, Sunday’s three encounters seem more or less decided after the first leg. But no team can be sure they will not stumble.
• Barcelona right back Jure Dolenec faces his former Montpellier teammates in Spain
• Veszprém aim to come back from a seven-goal deficit for the first time in their Champions League history
• Nantes have not lost any Champions League home matches this season
• Kielce are the closest to the quarter-final, with a 24-goal advantage after the first leg
• Kiel can eliminate Szeged for the third straight time
LAST 16, SECOND LEG
FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs Montpellier HB (FRA)
Saturday 31 March, 18:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com
It was 14 years ago that FC Barcelona last experienced elimination in the Last 16 of the EHF Champions League (at the hands of Veszprém). Now, coach Xavi Pascual’s team face the prospect of elimination again.
Montpellier won the first leg on home ground 28:25, but even the French side’s coach Patrice Canayer is not sure: “It is only half-time. Still, Barcelona are the favourites.”
Pascual and his side count on the ‘magic of Palau Blaugrana’, where the Champions League record winners have turned many knock-out clashes around, including a seven-goal deficit against Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the 2013/14 quarter-finals.
After eliminating then defending champions Kielce in the 2016/17 Last 16, Montpellier are famous for upsets. On that occasion, they even managed to turn a four-goal deficit at the break into an away win.
“We know that we have to improve, and I hope we will,” said Barcelona team captain Victor Tomas.
The winner of this Last 16 pairing will face SG Flensburg-Handewitt in the quarter-finals.
MOTW: Telekom Veszprém HC (HUN) vs Skjern Handbold (DEN)
Saturday 31 March, 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com
Can Skjern cause the biggest sensation of the season? The Danish runners-up are in control of their own fate after the 32:25 victory in the first leg on home ground.
“We created a good base, but we know that it will be difficult in Hungary,” said Skjern’s Marcus Olsson, who is currently ranked second on the Champions League 2017/18 top scorer list with 77 goals.
In what is their 88th knock-out match in Champions League history, Veszprém have their backs against the wall. Their dream to be become the first team with five consecutive participations in the VELUX EHF FINAL4 suffered a significant blow in the first leg, when they were intermediately behind by up to nine goals.
It was five years ago that the record Hungarian champions last lost a Champions League knock-out match on home ground (against Kiel in the quarter-finals). The 2012/13 season also marks the team’s last elimination prior to the season’s pinnacle event.
Veszprém have never managed to turn a seven-goal deficit around. The last time they trailed by such a clear difference was in the 2010/11 season in the Last 16 against Barcelona (21:28).
When team captain Bjarte Myrhol returns to his former club Veszprém, where he played 13 years ago, Skjern have the chance to become the first Danish side since AG København in 2012 to make it to the quarter-finals of the EHF Champions League.
The winner of this pairing will face either Nantes or Brest in the quarter-finals.
HBC Nantes (FRA) vs HC Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Sunday 1 April, 17:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com
The farewell tour of Nantes wing Dominik Klein, who announced that he would end his career after this season, looks on its way to an extension. After the clear 32:24 away win at Brest, Nantes are nearly through to their first ever quarter-final in the VELUX EHF Champions League – in only their second season.
“Of course, we want to fight to win at Nantes, but we know that the deficit is huge,” said Brest’s Simon Razgor after the first leg.
The statistics speak clearly in favour of the French side: Nantes have not lost any home match in the current season. Once, they drew with Rhein-Neckar Löwen, and among the six victories were two against the powerhouses Barcelona and defending champions Vardar.
In their overall Champions League history, HBC have only lost one of 13 home matches – in the 2016/17 group phase against Zaporozhye. On the other hand, Brest have only won one away match (in Aalborg) in the 2017/18 season.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs PGE Vive Kielce (POL)
Sunday 1 April, 19:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com
11 goals represent the biggest difference any team has managed to come back from in the VELUX EHF Champions League knock-out stage, when Füchse Berlin turned a 23:34 quarter-final defeat away at Valladolid in 2012 into a ticket for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 through a 29:18 win on home ground. But Löwen are far from hoping for a sensation like this after the 17:41 loss in Kielce in the first leg.
Thus, the German champions expect their fourth straight elimination in the Last 16, while Kielce seem to have an easy Easter Sunday ahead on their way to their fourth Champions League Quarter-final.
And their upcoming opponents, Paris Saint-Germain, shall be aware: Every time Kielce made it to the quarter-finals, they went on to qualify for the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs THW Kiel (GER)
Sunday 1 April, 17:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com
“This was the best week we played in the current season,” said THW Kiel coach Alfred Gislason after his side beat Szeged 29:22 in the first leg of the Last 16, then left Löwen behind 27:22 in the top match of German Bundesliga.
“We will travel to Hungary full of confidence, but we are aware of the home strength of Szeged,” team captain Domagoj Duvnjak added.
Kiel have never been eliminated in the Last 16 of the EHF Champions League – and it looks as though they could repeat their history with Szeged. The German side has already eliminated the same club twice, in the 2014/15 quarter-final and the 2015/16 Last 16.
In the first leg of the current season, it took Kiel 40 minutes to break Szeged’s resistance. It was mainly goalkeeper Niklas Landin who was key for the clear success.
Szeged’s home performances have been quite shaky in 2017/18: They were the first team ever to take a point against Vardar and beat Barcelona in their arena, but then lost to Plock and Löwen.
“We still have our chances to take, and we will try to grab them, but we know that it will be hard against a club like Kiel,” said Szeged coach Juan Carlos Pastor.
The aggregate winner of this pairing will face defending champions Vardar in the quarter-finals.