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17.04.2014, 11:42
Final hurdle on the road to Cologne
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ROUND PREVIEW: At least two debutants will make their way to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 from the quarter-finals, which are the most unpredictable in years

»EHF CL Channel »2013-14 Men's CL
»Quarter Final
»
 

Final hurdle on the road to Cologne

It is crunch time in the VELUX EHF Champions League. From Saturday to Monday, the first legs of the quarter-finals may already give a hint to which teams will qualify for the 2014 edition of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne (31 May/1 June).

For the first time in years, these four quarter-final duels do not include any pairings which were already played in the group phase. The draw also ensures that two teams will make their debut in Cologne, as the pairings Veszprem vs PSG and Flensburg vs Vardar include teams yet to have participated in the season’s highlight.

In contrast, the duel of FC Barcelona vs. Rhein Neckar Löwen will guarantee that at least one former participant will return to Cologne. Barcelona reached the final weekend three times (2010, 2011 and 2013), while Löwen were part of the event in 2011.

THW Kiel were also present three times (2010, 2012, 2013), while their quarter-final opponent Metalurg have not tasted the FINAL4 atmosphere before.

For the first time in the EHF Champions League, two teams from one city have come so far, and bearing in mind that Vardar’s women have qualified for the MVM EHF FINAL4 on 3-4 May, Skopje is becoming the emerging home of European handball.

The reverse fixtures of the quarter-finals will be played on 26/27 April, followed by the VELUX EHF FINAL4 draw on 29 April in Cologne.

Metalurg Skopje (MKD) vs. THW Kiel (GER)
Saturday, 18:30 hrs. local time live on ehfTV.com – second leg: Sunday, 27 April, 14:15 hrs. local time
Head-to-head stats: 2 THW victories – 0 draws – 0 Metalurg victories

Both sides had an unexpected free weekend last Saturday and Sunday, as both missed their respective cup finals. THW Kiel were eliminated in the from the German Cup in the Last 16, Metalurg failed to qualify for the SEHA League final event in Novi Sad.

However, while Metalurg can fully focus on their second straight VELUX EHF Champions League quarter-final, THW had another top task prior to the first leg in Skopje, as they lost to Rhein Neckar Löwen in a battle for the top of the Bundesliga on Wednesday.

The only time both sides duelled was in the 2008/09 season, when Kiel won both group matches against the Macedonians.

Metalurg are the only remaining team in this competition arriving from qualification and they have been greatly helped on their way by current VELUX EHF Champions League top scorer Renato Vugrinec, who struck 85 times in the competition.

The duel of the three-time champions (2007, 2010, 2012) against the Macedonian runners-up might be decided in a private duel of two close friends: THW Serbian sniper Marko Vujin and Metalurgs “minister of defence”, Serbian goalkeeper Darko Stanic.

Metalurg mostly focus on defence, while Kiel will try to decide the match by their fast breaks and back court shooters. Both will be missing key players, as Ramus Lauge (THW) and Naumce Mojsovski (Metalurg) are out for the rest of the season due to knee injuries.

“Everybody knows the strengths of Metalurg. They have beaten Barcelona and they eliminated Kolding with two victories in the last round. We will have to stand the atmosphere in the lion’s den of the Boris Trajkovski Arena first, but it is our goal to proceed to Cologne, so we have to beat any opponent on our way there,” said THW manager Klaus Elwardt.

Metalurg’s secretary general Zoran Cvetanovski is optimistic: “Kiel is a very famous name in international handball and I think Metalurg deserved to play against such a big name. It'll be two great matches. It's a very good advantage to play the first match at home. At Skopje no visiting team has taken a win home with them.”

SG Flensburg-Handewitt (GER) vs. Vardar Skopje (MKD)
Monday, 19:00 hrs. local time live on ehfTV.com – second leg: Saturday, 26 April, 17:00 hrs. local time
Head-to-head stats: no previous encounters

The outcome of the weekend prior to the first leg match could not have been more contrasting. While Flensburg failed in their fourth straight German Cup final (this time against Füchse Berlin), Vardar managed to win their second SEHA League trophy after beating Brest 29:27 in the final.

“If we play like we did during the SEHA final tournament in Novi Sad, we really have a chance to eliminate Flensburg and make it to Cologne,” Vardar’s Spanish coach Raul Gonzales said.

Flensburg are absolutely aware of their opponent, even if they never faced before – not only due to the SEHA results, but even more after the performance Vardar had shown in the Last 16, when they eliminated defending VELUX EHF Champions League champions HSV Hamburg by winning the away match.

“The chances are 50:50, as Vardar are really tough opponents. We need to have a great result in the first leg, as we will expect hell on earth in the rematch in Skopje,” said Flensburg manager Dierk Schmäschke.

Both sides have not made it to Cologne before, but Flensburg have been part of two quarter-finals (2011, 2013) since the implementation of the current playing system, while Vardar are making their quarter-final bow.

The return of top scorer Timur Dibirov after an eye injury is a huge boost for Vardar, and the Russian’s MVP performance in the SEHA league finals showed that the injury has not affected him.

Flensburg still suffer from several injuries to back court players like Lars Kaufmann and Olafur Gustafsson, meaning that young Swede Jim Gottfridsson will have to take a measure of responsibility for the side who are unbeaten at home all season in this competition.

Rhein Neckar Löwen (GER) vs. FC Barcelona (ESP)
Sunday, 19:15 hrs. local time in Mannheim live on ehfTV.com – second leg: Saturday, 26 April, 20:15 hrs. local time)
Head-to-head stats: 1 Löwen victory – 1 draw – 1 Barcelona victory

They went through Asobal Liga like a hot knife through butter – and after only 25 rounds, FC Barcelona managed to win their 21st championship in Spain after their 25th straight victory on Friday (48:22 against Aragon).

The Catalans, who took their fourth straight trophy in the domestic league, can now fully focus on their international tasks.

On the other hand, Löwen just missed out on their first trophy in Germany by losing the German Cup semi-final against Flensburg, but followed it with an impressive win in the top of the Bundesliga clash with Kiel on Wednesday, providing the fans in Mannheim with two “haute handball cusine” meals within five days.

The last time both sides faced was in Cologne, now both have the ambition to make it again there without the other. In the 2011 semi-final Barcelona took a 30:28 victory to set up a their last title win, which came only 24 hours later in a final victory over Ciudad Real.

In the 2010/11 season both teams also faced in the group phase, when Löwen sensationally won at Palau Blaugrana in the first match of their now outgoing coach Gudmundur Gudmundsson, later they tied in Mannheim (38:38).

“My personal record with Barcelona is not that bad, and our players do not have to hide from those world class players in the Catalan’s squad. But in my opinion, Barca are still the main favourite for winning the trophy in this season,” said Gudmundsson.

Barcelona’s coach Xavi Pascual is wary of Löwen: “They have played an incredible season. Anyone who eliminates Kielce and ties with Veszprem cannot be that bad. No decisions will be made until the rematch in Palau Blaugrana.”

While the German side currently have no injury worries in their squad after team captain Uwe Gensheimer had recovered from Achilles problems, Barcelona are still without goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik (knee operation), who was replaced by Michael Robin before the Last 16 matches.

The game is ehfTV.com's Match of the Week, with live commentary by Tom O Brannagain and will also feature the first live performance of the new official VELUX EHF Champions League song "Do it like us", which will be performed before throw-off by Rob Fowler.

PSG Handball (FRA) vs. MKB-MVM Veszprém (HUN)
Saturday, 16:30 hrs. local time live on ehfTV.com – second leg: Saturday, 26 April, 16:00 hrs. local time
Head-to-head stats: no previous encounters

They have had several attempts, but every time they left the quarter-finals empty-handed, after elimination by either a Spanish or German team. However, MKB-MVM Veszprém are as strong as ever and are eager to make it to Cologne for the first time.

Despite having no German or Spanish opponent this time, the task is anything but easy, as star-studded PSG Handball have had plenty of time to rehearse as a a team since the start of the season.

The situation is similar to the Flensburg vs Vardar encounter – a debutant will proceed to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and both sides have never faced before. And: The winner of this encounter will definitely make history, as never before has either a team from France or Hungary reached the season-ending event.

The tie will be something very special for Gabor Csaszar, who transferred from Veszprém to Paris last summer.

The French champions have already reached their best result in the competition to date by making it to the quarter-finals (after their Last 16 appearance in the 2005/06 season), while the biggest success of Veszprém is still reaching the final in 2002, when they lost against German side SC Magdeburg.

Paris only lost one home match in the competition so far (against Barcelona), while Veszprém’s only losses came in their previous two away matches (in Zaporozhye and Plock).

“We aren't really happy. This is one of the strongest teams we could possibly draw. Paris have played excellently. If we could have chosen, we would have picked a different team,” admits Veszprém club director Csaba Hajnal.

PSG feel the same way as their opponents, but remain confident: “They have a huge atmosphere in their arena, which makes it difficult for any team, but we have the quality, individually and collectively, to cause them problems,” says PSG manager Bruno Martini,  an EHF Champions League winner himself with Montpellier in 2003.

The situation in their domestic leagues is quite different: While Veszprém are topping the Hungarian table, level in points with their arch rivals Pick Szeged, PSG sit three points below current leaders Dunkerque.


TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor
 
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