Wind of change in Norway
This EHF Champions League season may be historic, in the way that it could be the first time in many years that no Norwegian team qualifies from the group matches.
In recent years, we have been used to Larvik reaching at least the quarter-finals, even winning the tournament in 2011 and reaching the final in 2015.
This year, Norway have two clubs – Larvik as well as Vipers Kristiansand – in the group matches. It is too early to count them out of the competition, as both teams still have a chance to reach the main round.
Larvik will need at least one point more than Thüringer HC on the last match day in Group C. The final round of group matches sees the German side visit undefeated HC Vardar on Friday, before Larvik host FTC-Rail Hungaria on Sunday.
Vipers have their fate in the own hands. An away win against Buducnost, who Vipers defeated by 10 goals at home, is all it will take.
Nevertheless, it is unusual to see Norway, who are such a dominant nation on a national team level, in danger of losing representation at such an early stage of the Champions League. What are the reasons, and how does the future look?
Champions in a rebuilding phase
In Larvik’s case, no one should be surprised by the current situation. Last season they had to replace their greatest star, Nora Mørk, and ahead of this season, the Norwegian record champions said goodbye to an entire team of established top players. Goalkeepers Sandra Toft and Alma Hazanic, the two backs Amanda Kurtovic and Alina Wojtas, line player Marit Malm Frafjord, playmakers Gro and Anja Hammerseng-Edin, and left wing Sanna Solberg all left.
Therefore, this season was one of rebuilding in Larvik.
Young players with plenty of potential have taken over, but Larvik have not been spared bad luck. Left wing Thea Mørk has been sidelined with an injury all the season, left back Tine Stange only returned from injury recently, and right wing Linn-Kristin Riegelhuth Koren is pregnant.
Under these circumstances, Larvik have actually done surprisingly well – at least in their two latest Champions League matches. Larvik put Vardar to the test in Skopje, though they lost 30:27, then won 25:22 away against Thüringer to stay in the race for the main round.
Even if Larvik do not make it to the next stage, Tor Odvar Moen’s team have no reason to feel ashamed of their Champions League campaign this season, considering their working conditions.
Always hard for newcomers
One could expect a bit more from Vipers, even though they had to go through the qualifiers to reach the group matches.
The club from Norway’s fifth largest city, Kristiansand, has been building a strong team over recent years. By reuniting twins Katrine Lunde and Kristine Lunde Borgesen this season, they really drew the spotlight to themselves.
However, integrating new players always takes time, and even though assistant coach Kristine Lunde has been able to step in as playmaker, the loss of injured Marta Tomac has been a handicap. Katrine Lunde has been the expected reinforcement in goal, but she has not been enough to secure stability in the team’s performances.
Furthermore, Vipers have had to realise what many Champions League debutants have learned before them: Being a newcomer in the Champions League is a learning process, and it can be tough.
Finally, when a team comes through the qualification matches, it will always influence seeding.
Still, Vipers can decide their own fate in the last match. With a win in Podgorica on Saturday evening, Vipers will make it to the main round in their maiden Champions League season.
However, they will be up against a Buducnost team who won their first two home matches in the group in a convincing fashion so, despite the confidence from the 29:19 win in Aquarama on October 14, it will not be an easy task.
A brighter future
Whether both Norwegian teams make the cut, or one of them or none of them, it is interesting to look a bit beyond the current season.
In Larvik’s case, the rebuilding phase must be expected to take a while. The club seems to be out of the financial problems they have been struggling with for years, but they still cannot afford to buy players from the top shelves. Larvik’s days as the country’s dominant team are over, at least for a while, and the wind of change is blowing over Norwegian women’s handball.
Still, it would be too early to write off Larvik’s chances of returning to the top, even in Europe, sometime in the future. Much can be built on the tremendous tradition and culture in that club.
In the near future however, there can be higher expectations of Vipers. The support in Kristianstad is impressive, and local businesses are eager to help the club reach a higher level, also internationally.
The Women’s EHF FINAL4 is the objective within a few years and it will be interesting to follow the southern Norwegian team’s efforts to reach this ambitious goal.