Familiar foes face each other in the VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-finals as the strongest-ever season reaches its climax. As the competition heats up, it becomes extremely difficult to rank the participants, but our correspondents have carefully considered to produce the pre-quarter-final power ranking.
8. THW Kiel
Putting Kiel last in the Power Ranking does not mean they cannot go on to win the competition. This team may lose clutch players and be hit by injuries, but Alfred Gislason knows how to win matches and this is what matters in the knock-out rounds.
The German powerhouse finished fifth in Group A with seven defeats and scored 23 goals less than they conceded so it came as no surprise when Rhein-Neckar Löwen beat them on home soil in the Last 16. Yet there may not be a team in the entire competition that perform better under huge pressure than Kiel, and it was therefore they who advanced to the next stage.
With the likes of Nikola Bilyk and Marko Vujin, Kiel’s backline can get the better of any defence and as long as Niklas Landin stands in goal every opponent has a reason to treat Kiel with due respect. One blow is the absence of centre back Domagoj Duvnjak, who has battled injury all season and underwent an operation on Tuesday that will see him off court for six to nine months.
7. Montpellier HB
The French outfit caused the biggest upset of the round of 16 by eliminating title holders KS Vive Tauron Kielce and becoming the first team from Group C/D to make it to the quarter-finals.
Montpellier suffered only two defeats this season – both in the first three rounds – which nobody remembers now as the French team were unbeaten against heavy favourites Kielce in the first knock-out round. Jure Dolenec has been one of the best right backs of the VELUX EHF Champions League, and together with Mathieu Grebille and Diego Simonet they form an excellent back line.
Coach Patrice Canayer’s team is not about defending – they conceded close to 30 goals per game in the knock-out round but their attacking potential and the fact that they have already exceeded expectations make them a worthy opponent for Veszprém.
6. MOL-Pick Szeged
Juan Carlos Pastor is a miracle worker, there’s no denying that. The Spanish mastermind has built an excellent team from a group of great talents in just 10 months and Szeged rightfully claimed a spot in the top eight this season.
Losing Dean Bombac was a huge blow, but Szeged rebuilt their attacking game very quickly. As for the newcomers, Sergei Gorbok and Stas Skube deliver big time while the old guard featuring Jonas Källman, Zsolt Balogh and Jose Manuel Sierra remain dependable fighters in Pastor’s team.
Swedish giant Källman is particularly important, and along with Alen Blazevic he is a key player in defence and the most important part of Pastor’s occasional 5-1 formation. They seem to be underdogs against PSG but those who underestimate them are in for a nasty surprise.
5. SG Flensburg-Handewitt
There have been better times for Flensburg but the German outfit have a lot to hope for this season. Three years ago, the situation was similar: Having overcome a fierce opponent in the Last 16 (Celje) they faced Vardar in the quarter-finals, whom they beat on away goals and went on to win the competition against all odds.
The German team are still able to produce top-quality handball and experience will be on their side against most Champions League opponents, but Flensburg did not beat any but one of the elite teams this season, recording an away victory in Kiel.
A new era will begin in the handball-crazy city when Ljubomir Vranjes departs Flensburg at the end of the season, but the Swedish coach is surely determined to leave his beloved team with a last shot at glory.
4. Telekom Veszprém
It has been a troubled season for the Hungarian champions, who already lost one of their trophies from last year (Vardar beat them in the SEHA League Final) but managed to defend their domestic cup title against Szeged thanks to a last-second goal from Aron Palmarsson.
Veszprém’s problems are not easy to solve. The ageing squad sorely need some fresh blood but Xavi Sabaté puts trust in his veterans, who usually deliver – though the amount of points lost in the last minutes of top-class matches should be alarming for the Spanish coach.
The Hungarian powerhouse is still among the title contenders and there is an enormous amount of talent in their squad, but the general feeling is that last year’s final was the one they could ideally win. At least this time they do not have to face the opponent from the 2015/16 final as Montpellier cleared Kielce out of their way.
3. HC Vardar
Fourth time lucky? At least the proud city of Skopje believes so as the enthusiastic fans of the Macedonian capital have had enough of quarter-finals: They have made it to the last eight for the fourth consecutive time but have yet to set foot in Cologne.
The women’s team have already made it to the FINAL4 but Raul Gonzalez’s players must face their ghosts from the past when they meet Flensburg, who beat Vardar after an incredible quarter-final clash in 2014. This time however, the Macedonian team appear the heavy favourites to reach the VELUX EHF Champions League FINAL4.
Vardar won their group, which meant they skipped the Last 16 and had time to prepare for the SEHA League Final4, where they showed their strength by beating Veszprém for their first international trophy. They tend underperform in important games, but this is the strongest Vardar ever.
2. PSG Handball
There is only one question about the Parisians: Can Noka Serdarusic create enough space in his team for Mikkel Hansen and Nikola Karabatic to co-exist? If the veteran coach can fit both superstars into his battle plan PSG will be the team to beat for the title.
The depth of their squad inevitably makes the French team one of the main contenders and the ongoing season proved Serdarusic is the right man for the star-studded PSG side. Their defeat in the Round 1 in Kiel cost the French team first place in Group A, but having beaten Barcelona by a convincing margin in Round 6 (33:26) PSG have no one to fear.
The French powerhouse have an ideal mix of battle-hardened veterans and the best up-and-comers of the game. Nedim Remili has been the best young player of the season while summer signing Uwe Gensheimer is first on the top scorers’ list.
1. FC Barcelona Lassa
Barca saved some energy for the quarter-finals by winning the group, thus skipping the Last 16, which makes it difficult to tell how the Catalan giants are shaping up, but one thing is for sure: Xavi Pascual’s team was nonetheless picked as the number one side by our correspondents, and rightly so.
Apart from their defeat at PSG, Barcelona have marched through the season with demoralising confidence. Like PSG, Barca have experienced superstars and promising youngsters, and their defence is second to none in the competition.
However, Barca dropped one point in the group against their quarter-final opponent, THW Kiel, who they certainly have a bone to pick with. Last year the Catalan side were considered heavy favourites to win the competition, but Kiel eliminated them in the quarter-final.