Vardar win group after stalemate between Löwen and Nantes
The final round could have seen a surprise winner in VELUX EHF Champions League Group A, as a victory for HBC Nantes against Rhein-Neckar Löwen and a defeat for Vardar versus Plock would have propelled the French side to the top of the table.
However, Nantes only managed a draw, which handed Vardar the group win, as the title holders own the tie-breakers against the French side and FC Barcelona.
• Nicolas Claire scores seven times for Nantes, who will finish second or third in the group
• Löwen’s top scorer is Swedish left wing Jerry Tollbring, with six goals
• Löwen were sure to finish fourth before the game and will meet the fifth-placed team from Group B in the Last 16
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs HBC Nantes (FRA) 30:30 (13:15)
There was nothing the Lions could do to escape fourth place in the group, while Nantes had everything to play for, as they could easily top the table – but could also fall to third place in case of a loss.
There were no gifts from the hosts, as the game quickly became a tough fight between the two defences and goals were hard to come by. Yet Nantes managed to erase an early two-goal deficit with a 4:0 run that saw them take a 5:3 lead, though the visitors recorded a shocking offensive efficiency of 25 per cent after missing nine of the first 12 shots.
It was the great start that brought Nantes the win against Vardar in Round 13. On Saturday, despite their below-par attack, it was more of the same for the French side until late in the first half, when a 5:2 run spurred by left wing Tollbring saw Löwen level the game, 12:12.
Dramatic finish does not help Nantes
As Nantes went into the half-time break with a 15:13 lead, the French side looked like they had the upper hand against their opponents. But Löwen, who had a winless run of five games before the victory against Plock in the last round, were competitive. Tollbring and veteran line player Rafael Baena were in particularly fine form, helping their team take a 22:21 lead with 16 minutes to go.
With Nicolas Claire and Nicolas Tournat at the top of their game, though their defence missed a step, Nantes came back and were favourites to snatch their 10th win of the season when they pulled ahead to a 28:26 advantage.
It was a dramatic end for both teams, as Löwen equalised thanks to playmaker Andy Schmid, who scored all five of his goals in the last 15 minutes – but Nantes still had one last attack.
The time-out taken by coach Thierry Anti did not help, as the French side lost the ball in the final five seconds and therefore failed to force Vardar into a must-win situation against Plock on Sunday.
"Everybody could see that we tried everything to win this game and to get the possibility to reach first place in our group. Playing against RNL is never easy. It was a close game like in Nantes," said Nantes coach Anti, while Löwen coach Nikolaj Jacobsen added: "The draw is OK. I am happy that I could use all my players. We saw two very good teams, not only today, in the whole Champions Leage season so far. I wish Nantes best of luck for the next games."
If Barcelona take a victory against Szeged on Sunday, Nantes will finish third in the group, while any other result will hand the French side second place.