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30.10.2014, 10:00
EHF EURO 2014 finalists start next qualification campaign
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ROUND PREVIEW: EHF EURO 2014 champions France and silver medallists Denmark will start their EHF EURO 2016 Qualification campaign on Thursday, along with six other teams hoping to be present at the final tournament in Poland
 

EHF EURO 2014 finalists start next qualification campaign

It is a story of payback for many of the teams that will take to the court for their first match on the road to the EHF EURO 2016 this Thursday.

Croatia will ultimately be looking to make up for narrowly missing a medal at the EHF EURO 2014, Denmark aim to one-better their second place at the 2014 tournament and record four-time champions Sweden hope to end a fourteen-year absence from the EHF EURO podium.

But no team – even current EHF EURO 2014 champions France – can take their qualification as guaranteed, so it will be eight hungry teams ready to fight when their campaigns begin.

The top two ranked teams from each group, along with the best performing third-placed team out of all groups, will proceed to the final tournament in Poland in 2016.

A live ticker will be available for all matches, and six matches will be streamed live on ehfTV between Wednesday and Sunday evening.

Group 1: Croatia vs. Netherlands / Thursday, 18:00 hrs in Koprivnica

Despite a disappointing tournament for the Croatia national team at the Men’s EHF EURO 2014 earlier this year, the experienced side are the favourites ahead of Thursday’s match against the Netherlands.

As a perennial place-getter at almost every major international tournament since the squad really rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, Croatia are undoubtedly one of the strongest forces in men’s handball.

Their high-speed counter attacks and powerful back court shooters, led by 2013 World Handball Player of the Year and EHF EURO 2014 All-star, Domagoj Duvnjak, are sure to challenge the comparatively inexperienced Netherlands defence.

The Netherlands missed qualification for the EHF EURO 2014 after placing third in their group behind Poland and Sweden. This time around, the team have their sights firmly set on placing second – and coach Joop Fiege is confident his team has what it takes to achieve their goal.

Croatia and the Netherlands have never faced each other in a competitive match before.

Group 2: Denmark vs. Lithuania / Thursday, 20:15 hrs in Brondby

Following their loss in the final of the EHF EURO 2014 against France on a home court in January, the Danes are sure to be hungry for retribution.

It has been several years since Denmark and Lithuania met on the court (their last match was in 1998, which Denmark won 23:16), but the history favours Denmark, who won all four encounters.  

Lithuania have not qualified for a major international tournament since the EHF EURO 1998, but did manage to top their group on the path to qualification for the World Championship 2015 before losing against Russia in the play-off stage.

Lithuania will be looking to end their then 18-year-long EHF EURO absence in 2016, but the chances they will beat powerhouse Denmark along this way look to be slim.

The Danish story is a different one: with star players such as EHF EURO 2014 All-stars Niklas Landin and Mikkel Hansen and depth that runs through the entire squad, Denmark are – on paper at least – almost guaranteed to qualify for the final tournament.

Group 3: Sweden vs. Latvia / Thursday, 17:10 hrs in Nyköping

The last few years have shown that Sweden is perhaps one of the most unpredictable national teams in Europe. It is difficult to forget their spectacular performance at the London Olympics in 2012, only weeks after failing to qualify for the World Championship 2013.

So while the record four-time EHF EURO champions look to be the favourite ahead of Thursday’s match against Latvia, no one knows how incorrect expectations can be better than Sweden coaches Ola Lindgren and Staffan Olsson.

With their last EHF EURO medal in 2002, when they were crowned champions, in 2016 Sweden will be hoping to end a long absence from the podium – and their task begins on Thursday.

Latvia have yet to qualify for an international event, but Latvia coach Valdis Labanovskis has been developing his squad over the past few years, helped along by the fact that many of his key athletes are playing in the strong German Bundesliga.

Sweden and Latvia have never played against each other, which, together with the development in the Latvian squad, means Thursday’s match may be one of the more unpredictable of the week.

Group 6: France vs. Czech Republic / Thursday, 19:30 hrs in Chambery (live on ehfTV)

As champions of the EHF EURO 2014 France are firm favourites to win Thursday’s home match against the Czech Republic.

With a list of recent successes including the EHF EURO 2014 title, gold at the last two Olympic Games (Beijing 2008 and London 2012) and a collection of star players, the French are showing no signs of slowing down despite predictions that their ‘golden era’ had come to an end following London 2012.

Led by star Nikola Karabatic, the squad has a number of up-and-coming younger players – Valentin Portes, Luka Karabatic and Alix Nyokas – likely to be featured heavily in the qualification phase.

Despite France’s reputation, the history between Thursday’s home side and the Czech Republic is fairly even. The last time the teams faced one another in 2010, France won by only one goal – and the history prior to that is a story of mixed results.

Fresh off a surprise qualification for the World Championship 2015 following a spectacular comeback against Serbia, Czech Republic will undoubtedly be hoping to make up for the disappointment of the EHF EURO 2014 when they did not reach the main round.

However, their hopes received a massive blow when it became known that the Czech Republic’s star player, Filip Jicha, was injured and would miss the start of the EHF EURO 2016 Qualification.


TEXT: Courtney Gahan / ts
 
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