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28.09.2014, 22:42
PSG down Metalurg as Zagreb stun Kiel
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GROUP A REVIEW: PPD Zagreb delighted their fans in the Zagreb Arena with a well-deserved win over strong favourites THW Kiel in an enthralling Group A start to the new season.

»EHF CL Channel »2014-15 Men's CL
»Group Phase
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PSG down Metalurg as Zagreb stun Kiel

The opening day in Group A of the VELUX EHF Champions League could not have amounted to a more entertaining curtain raiser as Sunday’s tripleheader produced all the thrills and spills which handball fans crave for in Europe’s premier club competition.

While Naturhouse La Rioja and Paris Saint-Germain handball expectedly enjoyed winning starts, treble former champions THW Kiel were stung at old rivals HC PPD Zagreb who celebrated a memorable victory thanks to a magnificent second-half performance.

Most household names shone and so did some of the new faces on the biggest stage, namely Zagreb goalkeeper Filip Ivic who racked up 10 saves as the Croatian title holders conjured the first major upset of the season.

VELUX EHF Champions League Group A

HC PPD Zagreb vs THW Kiel 27:25 (9:13)

What a rollercoaster in the Croatian capital.

Few Zagreb fans, if any, anticipated their team would make a memorable comeback for their first win in five meetings with THW Kiel, the three-time European club champions, after the German giants produced a 5:0 run to take a 6:2 lead in what turned out to be an epic encounter.

With Christian Sprenger converting penalties at will and Dominik Klein executing fast breaks, Kiel looked totally in control as Zagreb struggled to keep up with their torrid pace.

Swede Nicklas Ekberg also joined Kiel’s free-scoring party and the home fans went rather silent when the visitors romped to a 12:7 lead in the closing stages of a one-sided first half. It seemed the one-way traffic would continue until the final whistle when Zagreb’s former playmaker Domagoj Duvnjak made it 15:10 early in the second half, but little did anyone on the court or in the terraces know what was to come in the last 20 minutes.

Zagreb’s youthful outfit, led by Sandro Obranovic, Luka Stepancic and the evergreen stalwart Zlatko Horvat, first produced a 4:0 run to cut the deficit to just one goal, while THW Kiel’s smooth offence came to a screeching halt at the other end.

Roared on by their noisy supporters, including new coach Veselin Vujovic who was watching from the stands as he is still serving a ban which dates back to his time in charge of Macedonian giants Vardar Skopje, Zagreb shored up the leaks at the back and produced another 4:1 run when they trailed 16:14 to turn the match on its head for good.

Having had Stepancic suspended for two minutes, Zagreb relied on versatile winger Horvat to convert two penalties with delightful lobs to take an 18:17 lead and although Kiel briefly drew level, they were blown away in the last 10 minutes as the home team’s offence worked to perfection.

Ivic stood firm at the other and the final whistle was followed by wild celebrations as the home team’s players embraced each other and their coaching staff after snatching two precious points in their bid to reach the Last 16 for the first time in three years.

“The lads were just too stiff for too long but when they finally relaxed and played to the best of their abilities, it was poetry in motion out there,” Zagreb’s assistant coach Zlatko Saracevic, standing in for the suspended Vujovic, told Croatian national television (HRT).

“Maybe I was a bit too harsh with them during a first-half timeout but I had to convince them that Kiel were just men of flesh and blood too and that we had a chance if we believed in ourselves. We knew Kiel would not like our 5-1 defence and when my players realised they had too much respect for their opponents, all the pieces fell into place as things panned out for us on the court,” he added.

Horvat said: “We proved that we can beat even the strongest teams on home court and we did it in a fantastic atmosphere. However, this is just one game and we mustn’t rest on laurels. We have to keep going and show the same kind of commitment in the upcoming games. Next is PSG away and they are individually even stronger than Kiel but we will go there with our heads high and determined to play our best handball.” 

Horvat and Obranovic led Zagreb with six goals each while Stepancic scored four, all of them in the second half. Marko Vujin, Aron Palmarsson and Sprenger netted four each for Kiel, who sorely missed their captain and top scorer Filip Jicha as the Czech sharpshooter will be sidelined for six weeks following Friday’s ankle surgery.

HC Metalurg vs Paris Saint-Germain Handball 22:27 (11:11)

Having beaten the expensively assembled French outfit 28:26 on home court last season, FYR Macedonia’s giants Metalurg Skopje must have hoped for Déjà vu in their jam-packed Boris Trajkovski Arena, dreaded for its raucous atmosphere by even the most battle-hardened visitors.

It was not to be this time though, as PSG produced their most mature performance of the season to make a winning start in a tough group. Led by mercurial right wing Luc Abalo, his opposite wing player Samuel Honrubia and prolific Danish left back Mikkel Hansen, PSG demonstrated their vast potential in the opening 15 minutes when they raced into a 7:3 lead.

Their quick and unpredictable transition of the ball in attack left Metalurg’s defenders chasing shadows most of the time while the ageless Thierry Omeyer stopped one shot after another, prompting the home team’s trophy-laden Croatian coach Lino Cervar to call a timeout.

Cervar’s angry rhetoric triggered an immediate response from his players, who looked a different team in the next 15 minutes with rock-solid defending and creative movement in attack which kept PSG defenders guessing which way to go.

Dejan Manaskov, Filip Mirkulovski and Serbian pivot Mijajlo Marsenic started exploiting the gaps as Metalurg, lifted by a deafening roar from the stands, caught up by the interval, having stifled out PSG’s Croatian right back Marko Kopljar.

They held on until midway in the second period, when Kopljar finally found his range and PSG went on a 3:0 run to take a 21:17 lead heading into the last 10 minutes of the rip-roaring contest. The superior individual skill of the visitors was everywhere to be seen at that point, but the valiant Macedonians refused to roll over.

They pulled back to 21:22 as Luka Cindric scored with a superb solo effort and that turned out to be the last hurrah for the home side, as another 3:0 run instigated by the unstoppable Hansen finally swung the game PSG’s way. The Dane finished as the game’s top scorer with six goals, Abalo added five while Kopljar, Honrubia and William Accambray netted three each for the winners. Mirkulovski led Metalurg with five while Manaskov and Marsenic scored four each for the home team.

Naturhouse La Rioja vs HC Meshkov Brest 39:31 (20:14)

Both sides will have a tough time advancing to the knockout stages from a fiercely competitive group and Spaniards Naturhouse La Rioja got their campaign on the right track after a convincing performance against Belarusian champions Meshkov Brest.

The home team led from start to finish and what started as a scrappy and error-strewn affair soon turned into a free-flowing contest as both outfits produced an avalanche of goals in a fine display of attacking handball.

Meshkov, who reached the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase after winning a tough qualifying tournament on home court, briefly held their own early on having tied the game at 5:5 in the opening exchanges.

That, however, was as good as it got for the visitors as La Rioja moved up a gear and carved out a 14:8 advantage thanks to a flurry of fast breaks and devastating shots from the nine-metre line.

The lead soared to 24:17 early in the second half but three unanswered goals by the visitors had the hosts on their toes again and it was clear there would be no upset when the Spanish outfit pulled away to 30:24 heading into the home straight. Meshkov still refused to lie down and cut the deficit to 33:29, but La Rioja held firm in the closing stages and came away with what could turn out to be a valuable win in their quest to progress into the Last 16.

Juan Antonio Garcia stood out for the home side with eight goals, Philip Stenmalm added six and Javier Garcia Rubio netted five, while Serbian pivot Rastko Stojkovic carried Meshkov with a game-high nine goals.

“We made a lot of mistakes and played poorly,” Meshkov coach Zeljko Babic said after the game.

His La Rioja counterpart Jota Gonzales was understandably pleased with the outcome. “We are very happy with the victory and each player on my team was intense in the effort to make a winning start.”


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor
 
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