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21.11.2013, 09:58
Croatia want to take it a step further
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ANALYSIS: A third place at the inaugural edition of the Golden League might sound disappointing just two months out of the EHF EURO 2014, but a former Croatian international thinks the team has everything it takes to go all the way in Denmark
 

Croatia want to take it a step further

January 2014 and together with it the Men's EHF EURO in Denmark are getting closer every day, and the best European handball teams now have less than two months to get in shape for the tournament.

Croatia, arguably one of the medal favourites at every major handball event, go into the final preparation phases with some of the best coaches the country's handball has on offer as head coach Slavko Goluza was joined on the bench by fellow Olympic medallists Zdravko Zovko and Valter Matosevic.

However, at the beginning of November Croatia only finished third at the inaugural edition of the Golden League after beating hosts, Norway, 28:26 but losing 28:29 to EHF EURO 2012 champions, Denmark, and 24:29 to Olympic champions, France.

The tournament showed that there is a lot of work ahead if Croatia want to defend the bronze medal - or get even further - they reached at the EHF EURO in Serbia in January 2012.

"Croatia have never been very good with preparation tournaments, so the results are pretty normal to me," says former Croatian international Zlatko Saracevic, who is currently CO Zagreb's assistant coach.

"I am not concerned at all, nor disappointed, because I know that we have an excellent team and great players that are all playing in best teams in Europe.

"They have now been together for many years and they are pretty experienced, so the most important thing from now on is that they stay healthy."

Since the EHF EURO is right around the corner, Saracevic, who was part of the Croatian handball generation which won gold at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, highlights that there are a lot of young and talented players who are knocking on the doors of the national team.

"In my opinion, Stipe Mandalinic and Luka Stepancic should already have a place in the national team. Not only because they could help the team, but also to gain the necessary experience so that, when the time comes for them to lead their national team, they can do it in the best possible way.

"That could well happen at the Rio Olympics (in 2016). These two players are the future of Croatian handball," explained Saracevic.

An easy group - or not?

At EHF EURO 2014 Preliminary Round Croatia, being drawn to Group D, face Sweden, Belarus and Montenegro.

However, Saracevic sets the bar high for the team that finished third at the past three major tournaments, the EHF EURO 2012, the 2012 Olympic Games and the World Championship 2013: "Croatia have never gone to a tournament with a simple goal of  just passing the group. The goal is, and always will be, the same - to get to the semi-finals.

"After that we will see what happens. We have a great team, the necessary quality and experience to aim for the semi-finals, but also to go a step further. That would definitely mean a lot to the team, it would actually be a great success.

"The group on its own is not that difficult, so passing it should not cause any anxiety. The most difficult  matches will be the ones against the Scandinavian teams, because they are playing at home and the atmosphere will be fantastic.

"The other favourites are also pretty clear, along with Croatia, they are Spain, Denmark and France," says Saracevic.

On the other side head coach Slavko Goluza tries to keep his team focused: "The European Championship is the hardest competition, because there are no weak opponents," he says.

"There are ten, twelve teams which are candidates for a medal. We have to be humble, think about ourselves and go one game at a time."

Goluza as well Saracevic know very well that the expectations of the Croatian public are always very high and that a bronze medal might not always be enough to please the fans.

"When you come home with a bronze medal it is a relative success because the fans have gotten used to brighter medals from the Croatian handball team. It is, to some extent, a real handball tragedy," says Saracevic.


TEXT: Zvonka Kelis / Björn Pazen / ts
 
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