Zagreb keep hopes alive, Barcelona stage incredible comeback
The race for the final place in the Last 16 is hotter than ever, after HC PPD Zagreb defeated HBC Nantes 23:22 with a dominant performance in the VELUX EHF Champions League Match of the Week.
The Croatian side, Kristianstad and Wisla Plock are now level on six points with two rounds remaining.
The other Group A match of the night saw Nantes lose second place in the group, as Barcelona staged an epic comeback against Plock, winning by the slightest of margins at 28:27.
• Nantes have the chance to level the game with 30 seconds to go, but Urh Kastelic denies Dragan Pechmalbec’s fast-break attempt
• Barcelona were behind for almost the entire second half, but managed a comeback in the last 10 minutes to snatch their second consecutive win
• The Spanish champions are now second on the table, tied with Vardar on 18 points – one point ahead of Nantes
• Zagreb will face Szeged next week, while Nantes host Vardar for crucial matches that will shape the final group ranking
HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb (CRO) vs HBC Nantes (FRA) 23:22 (12:8)
The game against Nantes was more than the Match of the Week for Zagreb – it was rather the match of the season, as a loss against the French side would have seen the hosts in trouble in the battle for a place in the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16.
The extra motivation certainly played its part on Saturday evening, as Zagreb produced one of their best shows of the season against a team that looked set to challenge Vardar for first place in the group.
"I'm proud of my team. This was the only way for us to celebrate here today. It was a fantastic match from our side, with incredible defence, especially in the first half. What my guys went through during the last few weeks, and now this kind of performance...I can't say anything but congratulate them on this. We managed to keep Nantes to only 22 goals today. Defence was amazing," said Zagreb coach Zlatko Saracevic.
The score was level only in the first minute, before Zagreb jumped to an 8:4 lead, with Damir Bicanic picking up where he left off in the previous round, scoring three times for the hosts in the first 12 minutes.
Buoyed by their raucous fans, Zagreb put on a stellar defensive display. 24-year-old Croatian playmaker Domagoj Pavlovic had the game of the season for the hosts, who boasted a comfortable 12:8 lead at half-time.
Amazing save from Kastelic caps Zagreb’s win
It was an unusual off night for Nantes in attack, as their big guns missed shot after shot. However, the French side did not make life easy for Zagreb, cutting the Croatian team’s lead to only one goal, 19:18, with 12 minutes to go, despite Urh Kastelic’s heroics between the goal posts.
While Zagreb’s 22:18 advantage with eight minutes to go looked to be enough, the Croatian side still had to sweat until the final seconds of the game. The aggressive 5-1 and 3-3 defence from the French side forced the hosts to make costly turnovers.
With 35 seconds to go, 22-year-old line player Pechmalbec had the chance to level the game, but his fast-break shot was saved by Kastelic, who delivered the second win of the season for Zagreb to keep the hosts in the hunt for a place in the Last 16.
The Croatian side will meet MOL-Pick Szeged next week, and the last round will see them battle Kristianstad in what could be a winner-take-all game.
"We knew they would play good defence, try to stay aggressive throughout the full course of the match. Of course we're not satisfied with this result, but the good thing is we're still in the race for first place and that remains our goal. It won't be easy, but we'll give our best to achieve it," said Nantes back Eduardo Gurbindo.
FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs Orlen Wisla Plock (POL) 28:27 (14:15)
Barcelona have hardly been consistent in the VELUX EHF Champions League this season, as they have not built a winning streak of more than two games. But when the Spanish side enjoyed a victory over title holders HC Vardar last week, they appeared rejuvenated following the club break for the EHF EURO 2018, where five of their players won the gold medal with Spain.
However, Barcelona had early trouble in the first part of Saturday’s game – especially in defence, where they could not stop Wisla left back Dan Racotea, who scored three times in the first four minutes.
Also, they lost right back Dika Mem, who had to be carried off the court after spraining his right ankle.
The teams traded goals as Wisla jumped to a 10:8 lead thanks to a 6:2 partial, with backs Racotea and Maciej Gebala in fine form, while Barcelona’s defence struggled to regroup.
It was a 4:0 run from the hosts that turned the game on its head, as the collective attacking effort – which saw 10 Barcelona players scoring in the first half – and six saves from Gonzalo Perez de Vargas allowed the hosts to reclaim the lead, 12:10.
It was not enough however, as a late comeback helped the Polish side fuel their dream of an upset, as they created a 15:14 lead before half-time.
Familiar face inflicts pain for Plock
Barcelona’s defence was more aggressive in the second half, but Plock’s impressive attack continued to wreak havoc in Palau Blaugrana.
A time-out called by coach Xavier Pascual had a calming effect for Barcelona, yet the Spanish champions still found themselves in a tough spot – down four goals, 22:18, with 17 minutes to go.
As Perez de Vargas collected more saves, Barcelona amped up their defence, while their struggling attack found back its stride. A 5:1 run engineered by playmaker Raul Entrerrios saw the hosts level the game at 24:24 with 10 minutes on the clock.
Barcelona’s experience was the decisive ingredient for the win, as Pascual’s team stopped the visitors when it counted and took advantage of Plock’s woes in the final minutes. It was a goal from former Plock line player Kamil Syprzak that pulled Barcelona to the narrow win, as he had the final say against the club whose jersey he wore for six years.
Jose Guilherme De Toledo, Plock right back: "We’ve played a good match, and I think that we deserved to win, at least one point."
Aitor Arino, Barcelona left wing: Our reaction was very good. The injury of Dika Mem affected us but all players have done a step forward.
Piotr Przybecki, Plock coach: "I think that we deserved more, much more. We have showed today, on the court, a very big fight."
Xavier Pascual, Barcelona coach: "Wisla Plock have deserved more, sure. We had problems with our attack and we didn't find good solutions. I’m very proud of my team, because they kept fighting."Author: Adrian Costeiu / cg