Nantes and Montpellier join PSG in Last 16
HBC Nantes converted their first campaign in Europe’s elite competition into a dream come true with two clear victories in the VELUX EHF Champions League Elimination Round C+D Play-offs, earning their place in the Last 16 after a second win against Naturhouse La Rioja on Saturday. With their current form, it seems even Europe’s giant teams need to watch out for Nantes.
After HC Motor Zaporozhye were surprised by the speed of the Montpellier HB's attack in their first play-off game, the Ukrainian team had a week to prepare and bring the fight to Montpellier for the second leg. Twice – in the first half and then again in the second period – the Ukrainian champions earned a two-goal advantage, but Montpellier’s experience and the fans behind the French side turned the game on its head.
Montpellier kept Motor under control to finish with a draw, and thanks to a 65:63 aggregate win, book their place in the Last 16 phase for the third consecutive season.
• French teams Nantes and Montpellier join PSG in the Last 16
• Nantes qualify for the Last 16 in their first Champions League season
• Montpellier will face the second-placed team from Group B, 2016 title winners Kielce, in the Last 16 phase
• Nantes will play the second-ranked team from Group A, PSG, in an all-French Last 16 tie
• Motor fail to qualify for the Last 16 for the third time in four years, while La Rioja are knocked out in the Elimination Round two seasons running
ELIMINATION ROUND C+D
Montpellier HB (FRA) vs HC Motor Zaporozhye (UKR) 29:29 (14:13)
With a 2:0 lead after only two minutes, Montpellier made it clear they were not dwelling on the 36:34 win from the first leg.
The French side’s energetic approach made it seem Motor were again struggling to cope with the fast-paced attack against them. But the Ukrainian team, who had no solution in the first leg, quickly bounced back and started to create problems.
The right side of the court was by far Motor’s best weapon, with Sergey Shelmenko and Artem Kozakevych earning the Ukrainian champions a 7:5 lead after 15 minutes.
Winning penalties when they did not manage to score was key for Motor, and the guests soon opened a three-goal lead, 11:8, that put them in the driver’s seat of the two-legged tie.
Dolenec steps up when it counts
A 6:2 partial for Montpellier to end the half, thanks to better efforts in defence and an amazing game from Valentin Porte, brought smiles back to the faces of Montpellier’s fans.
There was not much for Motor to do than be aggressive and force Montpellier’s hand to make mistakes – and that is exactly what the Ukrainian side did.
Motor traded goals with the favourites until they reclaimed the lead in the 42nd minute and created another two-goal gap, 21:19, thanks once again to the right side of their attack.
Seeing the possibility of the Last 16 berth in tatters in their own home, the French side reacted quickly. Dolenec inspired Montpellier to hold on, scoring six of his eight goals in the second half.
Motor could not keep their two-goal lead as Montpellier took control, with Dolenec and Mathieu Grebille working wonders in attack.
Motor risked everything to win but could not perform in the decisive minutes, and the two sides came down to a 29:29 draw.
"We didn’t manage to turn things around in our favour, and the home-leg defeat was decisive in the end," said Zaporozhye coach Nikolay Stepanets. "Montpellier have a fine team and are in top physical condition."
HBC Nantes (FRA) vs Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) 37:31 (21:15)
Thierry Anti’s men did not take anything for granted, and with a strong offensive display including eight goals from Théo Derot and seven from Nicolas Claire, the French side claimed a 37:31 win to celebrate their maiden voyage in Champions League in style.
Fans in packed Salle Sportive de la Trocardiere enjoyed a very special night, with standing ovations at the end of both halves and singing throughout the whole game proving Nantes lives handball.
A convincing offensive display
Unlike a week ago, Nantes were clearly chasing the win from the first minute. The home team claimed a six-goal lead before half-time with superb efficacy from Nicolas Claire making the difference.
The visitors replied with Angel Fernandez, who proved how important he is after recovering from injury, but they could not match Nantes’ offensive qualities.
Neither 6-0 defensive systems had much success on Saturday. Nantes were on fire from the back court and counter attacks, while La Rioja showed their strength on the wings.
La Rioja did not give up after half-time, remaining competitive until the end of the game and attempting to play without the goalkeeper on a number of occasions as they fought to reduce the gap.
All French affair
As fans celebrated in the stands and players did the same on the pitch, the speaker in the hall announced the name of Nantes’ Last 16 opponent – PSG. Nantes have already beaten PSG this season and from the reaction of the fans, it appears the match will be an emotional all-French affair.