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30.01.2014, 12:08
FINAL4 chase begins with blockbusters
«Go back »Print Version


ROUND PREVIEW: Eight teams are in the hunt for a place in the first Women's EHF FINAL4 in two finely balanced groups

»EHF CL Channel »2013-14 Women's CL
»Main Round
»
 

FINAL4 chase begins with blockbusters

The long winter layoff in the Women’s EHF Champions League is unlikely to have lulled either fans or players into hibernation, as the eight best teams in the women’s premier club competition take centre stage this weekend.

The opening clash of the main round pits Midtjylland against Sävehof, two teams who defied the odds to advance from the preliminary group stage with every chance of vying for the Women’s EHF FINAL4 in Budapest, scheduled for 3 and 4 May.

Former champions Krim Mercator and Larvik meet in what should also be a delicately balanced match-up in the Slovenian capital, with both sides eager to make a winning start in a fiercely competitive Group 2.

Holders Gyori Audi ETO get their campaign underway with a home game against Montenegrin giants Buducnost Podgorica, with Katarina Bulatovic facing her former team mates as the Hungarian side aims to retain the trophy after winning it in style last season.

Emerging force Vardar Skopje entertain Germany’s Thuringer with recently World Handball Player of the Year Andrea Lekic set to lead the charge for the expensively assembled Macedonian outfit.

Group 1

FC Midtjylland (DEN) vs IK Sävehof  (SWE)

Saturday 13.45 local time in Ikast, live on ehfTV

The Main Round opener between these entertaining Scandinavian rivals promises to be a thrilling showdown between two upstarts who surprised more than just a few fans and pundits by reaching the last eight in Europe’s elite club competition.

Midtjylland progressed to the Main Round from arguably the toughest preliminary round group, including 2012 winners Buducnost Podgorica, a much-fancied FTC Rail Cargo Hungaria and Polish champions MKS Lublin, while Sävehof surprised many by advancing alongside Krim Mercator at the expense of Metz and Leipzig.

Midtjylland warmed up for the duel with a comfortable Danish league win over Holstebro, beating their rivals 21:16 after sending on a makeshift team in the second half to rest their key players.  

“We put out a young team and I can live with our second-half performance against Holstebro not being on the same level as the first,” Midtjylland coach Helle Thomsen told the club’s official website.

“We have many fierce battles ahead of us so it’s good that we have used the depth of our otherwise not very broad roster and given the young players a chance,” added Thomsen.

Savehof have added line player Elin Enhorning to their squad as a replacement for Linn Blohm but coach Henrik Signell has played down their chances of reaching Budapest from a finely balanced group.

“We are as prepared as we can be and the players have shown the level of commitment and passion that I want to see,” he told the club’s official website (www.savehof.se). “We have a 30 per cent chance of reaching the FINAL4 and we absolutely must take every opportunity that presents itself to us.”

WHC Vardar SCBT (MKD) vs Thuringer HC (GER)

Sunday 18.00 local time in Skopje, live on ehfTV

Vardar were always expected to reach the Main Round but few pundits tipped them to advance from the preliminary group stage so emphatically, dropping only one point in six games as they enjoyed a precious away win over mighty Larvik en route to the last eight.

Buoyed by their good form and a smooth transition in which the 10 players they signed during the close-season blended seamlessly into a ruthlessly efficient unit, Vardar have undoubtedly emerged as the favourites to come out on top of Group 1.

Boasting a myriad of top players, led by 2013 world player of the year Andrea Lekic, Vardar should have a fairly straightforward task against Thuringer, but will nonetheless be wary of their combative opponents.

For the versatile Lekic, it will also be a chance to show all her skills after winning the elusive individual award ahead of peers such as Katarina Bulatovic, Heidi Loke, Katrine Lunde and Anita Gorbicz.

“To say I am delighted would be an understatement because this is the biggest individual award available,” Lekic told Belgrade daily Sportski Zurnal after receiving the award. “I’ve had a fantastic year and the award was the final piece in the puzzle to cap a dream season,” said the Serbia playmaker, who won the silver medal with her country at the 2013 World Championship on home soil in December.   

Thuringer, in contrast, will travel to the Macedonian capital without the injured trio of Kerstin Wohlbold, Dannick Snelder and Lydia Jakubisova, as well as coach Herbert Muller who was handed a one-game suspension by the EHF Court of Handball and fined 5,000 euro for violating the EHF Code of Conduct.   

Group 2

Györi Audi ETO KC (HUN) vs Buducnost Podgorica (MNE)

Saturday, 18.30 local time in Gyor, live on ehfTV

The good news for Buducnost is that their Romanian left back Cristina Neagu and Serbian pivot Dragana Cvijic have extended their contracts with the 2012 EHF Champions League winners, who warmed up for their daunting drip to Gyor with an impressive 32:28 win over Vardar Skopje in the regional league.

The result was a boost for Buducnost coach Dragan Adzic, who acknowledged that his talented team would probably be involved in a three-way dogfight for the runners-up spot in the group with Krim and Larvik – having conceded that Györ were the odds-on favourites to win the section.

“We will be more focused on Larvik and Krim than Györ, because the Hungarian side are a class apart from everybody else and the strong favourites to win the Champions League,” Adzic was quoted as saying by Buducnost’s official website after the win over Vardar.

“It is a pity Vardar did not put out their strongest outfit for this game because that’s what we were gearing up for and hence I can say we benefited more from the games against Krim Mercator and Podravka Vegeta in the regional league. But I understand Vardar had different priorities because they are vying for the EHF Champions League FINAL4 in Budapest, while I also hope that we can get there too,” said Adzic.

Winger Majda Mehmedovic ended the first half with a hamstring strain but should be available for the classic with Györ, whose right back Katarina Bulatovic will face her former team mates with the task of leading the charge against the club she steered to the 2012 title.

Bulatovic and playmaker Anita Gorbicz are the active top scorers in the competition with 37 goals each, as Zsuzsanna Tomori of FTC Rail Cargo Hungaria (38) and Hypo’s Alexandra Do Nascimento (50) have exited the competition with their respective teams.

Hence the duo is expected to carry their good form into the game against Buducnost following a 12-goal Hungarian league win over Dunaujvaros which pleased Spanish coach Ambros Martin.

“I am very happy with the commitment of my players because it makes a difference how you win game and whether the final score reflects the difference in quality,” Martin told Györ’s official website.

“Playing at full steam is also the best way to honour your opponents because anything less would mean letting ourselves down no matter what the final score is,” he added.

RK Krim Mercator (SLO) vs Larvik (NOR)

Saturday, 20.00 local time in Ljubljana, live on ehf TV

The duel between Krim and Larvik completes a fascinating opening round in the group of champions and the winners will definitely gain a clear advantage in the race for the top two spots.

When at full strength, Krim are a force to be reckoned with and there is little doubt their fans expect the Slovenian champions to redeem themselves for last season’s semi-final fiasco against the same opposition on home court, when they squandered a two-goal lead from the first leg in Norway and suffered an eight-goal drubbing on home court.

However, that may be easier said than done and against 2011 winners and 2013 runners-up Larvik, the cornerstone of the Norwegian national team and one of the most compact teams in Europe.

“We are in for a tough challenge in our group and we probably have to see Gyor as the favourites to win it, meaning that the remaining three teams will battle it out for the last remaining berth,” Larvik’s assistant coach Tor Odvar Moen told ehfCL.com.

“It is essential to win our home games and then see if we can snatch a point or two away,” he added and pointed out that the visit to Krim may be Larvik’s best opportunity to accomplish the latter.

“The chance may come already in our first match against Krim as we will be in an attacking position and the pressure will be on them.”

That pressure will be even greater given that cash-strapped Krim have parted company by mutual consent with their Swedish back left Linnea Torstenson, as reported on the club’s official website


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor
 
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