|13.03.2017, 17:07||◄ last page|
FEATURE: The Last 16 fixtures are now known, while Barcelona and Vardar top their group to head straight through to the quarter-final
Things we know after VELUX Champions League Group Phase
The 14 weeks of electrifying action in the EHF Champions League Group Phase came to a dramatic closure with the final round last weekend.
Finally, after weeks of speculating, hoping, and worrying whether your team will make it to the Last 16, it is now clear who is through. The knockout stage is starting on 22 March.
The Last 16 pairings are in place, and we will have two national and one regional rivalry restored.
In what promises to be an eye-candy encounter, THW Kiel will welcome their well-known Bundesliga rivals Rhein-Neckar Löwen to Sparkassen, before taking the deciding tie to the Lions’ den in Mannheim.
French fans will have a real treat as well. The valiant HBC Nantes was drawn against the powerful Paris Saint-Germain Handball, while the VELUX EHF Champions League audience will have a chance to experience the SEHA League rivalry between HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb and Telekom Veszprém.
Furthermore, the remaining fixtures which line up the rampant French side Montpellier HB against the defending champions KS Vive Tauron Kielce, the enthusiastic Bjerringbro-Silkeborg against the brave MOL-Pick Szeged, and the exciting HC Meshkov Brest against the enigmatic SG Flensburg-Handewitt will have you drooling with the prospect of world-class handball in the coming weeks.
But first, let us reflect on the final round of the group phase- this may provide us with useful hints of what is to come in the knockout stage.
Last year’s finalists perform at just the right time
The VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase was a mixed success for last year’s VELUX EHF FINAL4 contestants Kielce and Veszprem.
The trophy holders’ form was a rollercoaster ride from the major highs, being four games undefeated in a rampant opening, to painful lows, crowned by the stutters against now eliminated RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko and IFK Kristianstad.
Meanwhile, Veszprém were able to come away with wins against the likes of THW Kiel, only to put all their effort in danger by throwing a victory against Orlen Wisla Plock due to a lapse in concentration in the dying minutes.
However, the quality of either team was never truly in question. It was only the question of when their quality would surface- and it did so in the final round.
Kielce were convincing at Brest (35:27), while Momir Ilic’s nine-goal clinic awoke the sleeping giant Veszprém (34:28) in their match against Flensburg.
The impressive final round displays brought some poetic justice for both powerhouses to silence the critics, at least for a while. Both teams face their Last 16 matchups in the last week of March.
Zagreb and Silkeborg board the last train in a peculiar fashion
This years’ VELUX Champions League Group Phase campaign had it all for Zagreb. The great expectations, after last season’s powerful display, the disappointment following the four-match winless opening, which saw the exit of the charismatic tactician Veselin Vujovic.
However, somehow, following final round drama against their regional rival Celje with a direct competition for the Last 16 berth, Zagreb have managed to overcome their troubles and squeeze into the Last 16. They managed to make it through on goal difference, after defeating Celje 23:21.
Furthermore, the Croatian side will also have to thank their compatriots in Vardar’s shirt Ivan Cupic, Igor Karacic and Luka Cindric for having the determination to finish the group stage on a high, with a 32:29 win against Kristianstad, who came to Skopje knowing only a win would see them through ahead of Zagreb.
Meanwhile, at pole position in Group A- getting one over rivals PSG, as well as the chance to sit through the Last 16, was too good an opportunity for FC Barcelona Lassa to pass. Barcelona were convincing in a 36:28 display at home against the Last 16 hopeful Orlen Wisla Plock.
Plock recieved no favours from the rampant group leaders, thus the Danish side Bjerrinbro-Silkeborg were allowed to claim their historic second Last 16 berth with a triumph against the outsiders Kadetten (37:32).
Power shift on the European handball map?
After what we have seen in the Group Phase, the Last 16 offers a lot of excitement as well as an element of unpredictability.
However, looking more carefully into the matchups sends a deeper message.
Having three sides in the VELUX EHF Champions League knock-out stage for three straight seasons- Germany is without a doubt the leading handball nation in Europe.
However, inspired by the meteoric rise of PSG, Montpellier and Nantes in recent years, this season, France equal Germany’s Last 16 presence with three teams of their own.
Meanwhile, Barcelona remain the only Spanish club in the Last 16 for the second year straight, as La Rioja fell short, while the end of Cadenas era at runners-up Orlen Wisla Plock has left Kielce as lone Polish competitor for the first time since 2012/13.
Contrastingly, it is the seven-nation regional behemoth SEHA that will take pride in four of its sides gracing Europe’s top 16 teams- Vardar, Veszprém, Meshkov Brest and Zagreb.
TEXT: Nemanja Savic/kc