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15.09.2015, 22:09
Barcelona lead star-studded field in toughest action
«Go back »Print Version


GROUP B PREVIEW: The defending champions of Europe’s premier club handball competition should add extra gloss to a wildly entertaining Group B featuring several other heavyweights.

»EHF CL Channel »2015-16 Men's CL
»Group Phase
»
 

Barcelona lead star-studded field in toughest action

The eagerly awaited new season in the VELUX EHF Champions League gets underway on Wednesday when Swedish newcommers IFK Kristianstad take on their more heralded Scandinavian opponents, Denmark’s KIF Kolding Kobenhavn.

It will be an appetiser for a six-month extravaganza in a mouth-watering section including holders FC Barcelona Lassa and last season’s third-place finishers KS Vive Tauron Kielce, with both teams again the strong favourites to advance into the knockout rounds.

The reformatted competition means there will be even more spectacular games and that is certainly what fans will be expecting when the big names of European club handball lock horns.

Having won the title emphatically with a 28:23 defeat of Hungary’s Veszprem in May, Barcelona head into the new season with a largely unchanged roster although two top performers were added to replace a key player who left.

Prolific Czech left back Filip Jicha was signed from former champions THW Kiel and Croatian right back Marko Kopljar arrived from Paris Saint-Germain Handball, while inspirational French playmaker Nikola Karabatic went the other way to the city of lights. With FYR Macedonia’s Kiril Lazarov and Belarus powerhouse Siarhei Rutenka also in the roster, Barcelona still appear to have by some way the strongest back court in the competition.

Having reached the FINAL4 for the second time last season for a creditable third-place finish, Kielce will have another shot at glory this term with a squad based largely on homegrown talent. Michal Jurecki, Croatian Ivan Cupic and evergreen goalkeeper Slawomir Szmal continue to be the backbone of Poland’s seemingly perennial champions, who will relish the challenge of reaching giddy heights for a second successive season.

Macedonian champions Vardar will have the same ambitions, as they attempt to reach the FINAL4 after suffering two successive quarter-final exits in 2014 and 2015. Several fringe players have left the club and others whereas others joined to fill the gaps, most notably Serbian line player Mijajlo Marsenic from HC Partizan Belgrade, Jorge Maqueda from Nantes and Luka Cindric from cross-town Skopje rivals HC Metalurg, who are competing in Group C.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen will have to cope with the loss of one of the world’s top goalkeepers, Niklas Landin, who joined fellow German rivals and Bundesliga champions THW Kiel. Landin has been replaced by Serbian Darko Stanic as the Lions aim to bounce back from last season’s exit in the Last 16, when they were soundly beaten by MOL-Pick Szeged 65:59 on aggregate.

The Lions will once again clash with the Hungarian outfit after they were pitted in the same group and Szeged will also head into the new season with the highest ambitions.

They will aim to at least emulate last term’s achievement of reaching the last eight, hoping to surpass it and get on the same par with Veszprem, having been overshadowed by their compatriots in Europe’s top flight. To boost their firepower, Szeged signed Brazilian sharpshooter Thiagus Petrus from Spanish side Naturhouse La Rioja and he made an immediate impact by scoring three goals in a tight 26:24 defeat by Veszprem in a recent Hungarian Super Cup final, the curtain-raiser to the new domestic season.

Check here what our experts and the former right back of KIF Kolding Kobenhavn Kim Andersson expect from the Group B:

With six clubs advancing past the group stage, Montpellier and Kobenhavn will in all likelihood face a dogfight to secure a last 16 berth.

Montpellier have made wholesale changes, with Croatian goalkeeper Venio Losert making way for French international Vincent Gerard while Aymen Toumi arrived to fill the void created by the departure of influential Tunisian line player Issam Tej.

Kobenhavn will celebrate their 200th European match during the group stage, having signed Russian Konstantin Igropoulo from Fuchse Berlin after left back Lasse Boesen ended his career to become the club’s manager and Swede Kim Andersson moved to his home club Ystad.

For Kristianstad’s young roster, playing in their maiden Champions League season should be an exciting ride and an opportunity to learn from mixing it with Europe’s finest.

Here is what the opening round of Group B has to offer:

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN)
Wednesday 16 September, 19:00 local time, live on ehfTV

Not exactly a baptism by fire for Champions League newcommers Kristianstad, as they will face considerably more difficult opposition in the latter stages of the group phase.

Their maiden game in Europe’s top flight features a clash with fellow Scandinavian rivals Kobenhavn and it is an encounter perfectly suited to create an electrifying atmosphere.

In fact, Kristianstad’s most heralded asset is their coach, former world and EHF EURO champion Ola Lindgren who joined the Swedish side after also coaching Germany’s Rhein-Neckar Lowen in the VELUX EHF Champions League.

“We see our Champions League participation as an inspiring challenge in which we might gain some points on home court,” Lindgren said recently after his side were pitted in a section full of giants. (Watch the ehfTV.com interview with Lindgren here)

With games against the likes of Barcelona, Kielce, Rhein-Neckar Lowen and Szeged coming up, Lindgren will perhaps see the match against Kobenhavn as one of those home games in which an exceptional performance coupled with roaring home support could produce the goods.

It would certainly be a dream start for Kristianstad but Kobenhavn will surely have other ideas.

“Our goal is to get through the group stages. It is a tough challenge but our ambitions are to get into the quarter-finals and this is what we have to expect from ourselves,” said Kobenhavn’s new director Lasse Boesen, who retired at the end of last season to assume a new role in his career.

Advancing from the toughest group in the competition will almost certainly require winning points at Kristianstad and Boesen will feel disappointed with anything less than a perfect start against the section’s underdogs.

MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Saturday September 20 16:30 local time; live on ehfTV

A most intriguing clash featuring the Hungarian league’s runners-up against the Polish champions, who enjoyed a successful Champions League season last term when they finished third.

Aiming to at least emulate the achievement which they also accomplished in 2013, buoyant Kielce will view the opening clash as a good test of their credentials to perhaps do one better this time and take centre stage in the grand final.

On both of those occasions, Kielce steamrolled to 10-0 records in the group phase but that will be somewhat harder to grind out this time, at the very least because Barcelona are standing in the way.

Kielce’s four new signings include Mariusz Jurkiewicz from traditional Polish rivals Orlen Wisla Plock, with coach Talant Dujshebaev able to rely on a rock-solid squad which has won six national league titles in the last seven seasons, wrestling away domestic supremacy from Wisla.

Having reached the quarter-final last season, Szeged will want to make the difficult next step and try to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Veszprem, the dominant force in Hungarian club handball.

In an effort to add some firepower in attack to their trademark ironclad defence, Szeged signed left back Thiagus Petrus Goncalves and the Brazilian made it no secret what his personal ambitions were. “I came here to be an important player. I know what the fans and the coach expect from me and I am ready to meet those high expectations. I am here to win matches and trophies,” he said for ehfCL.com.

Montpellier HB (FRA) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday 20 September, 17:00 local time, live on ehfTV

Erasing bitter memories of two successive quarter-final exits will be on Vardar’s mind as they head into the new season with a difficult trip to Montpellier, who were eliminated in the Last 16 in the previous season by fellow French rivals Paris Saint-Germain.

In a group as though and competitive as this one, both teams will see making a good start essential to their hopes of advancing into the knockout rounds.

Having added Alexander Dereven, Jorge Maqueda, Luka Cindric and Dejan Manaskov to their ranks, Vardar will feel they have strengthened the core despite the departures of Russian duo Alexey Rastvortsev and Mikhail Chipurin.

Montpellier also face a mountain to climb in the forthcoming season if they are to fulfill their ever so high ambitions, but they can count on the experience of stalwart coach Patrice Canayer, who has been at the helm since 1994 and is leading the club into their 18th season in Europe’s top flight.

With captain Michael Guigou and Slovenian right back Vid Kavticnik again expected to lead the charge, Montpellier have the know-how although they can ill-afford any slip-ups in a group of musical chairs.

Assuming that Kristianstad will prop up the section, at least one heavyweight will accompany the Swedish rookies through the exit door and Canayer made it clear avoiding that fate was a requirement and not an option.

MOTW: Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP)  
Saturday 20 September 19:30 local time, live on ehfTV

It’s always enthralling for the fans when the opening day offers a clash of the titans.

Barcelona could not have asked for a more compelling start to their title defence and likewise, handball fans in Mannheim will be delighted to welcome the club handball envy of Europe.

The match will tell to what extent the departure of the mercurial Nikola Karabatic, who joined Paris Saint-Germain, will affect Barcelona’s free-flowing game in attack and rock-solid defence.

While Czech maestro Filip Jicha should provide bite in attack after his mega transfer from THW Kiel, Marko Kopljar is expected to strengthen the defence after arriving from PSG in a move not nearly as spectacular as Karabatic’s journey in the opposite direction.

They will eye finishing top of their section as a prize in itself, as the winners of Groups A and B get a bye into the quarter-finals.

In addition to Jicha and Kopljar, Barca can also count on the versatile skills of Polish international Kamil Syprzak who joined them from Orlen Wisla Plock and should be an important link in the chain.

The Lions, aiming to bounce back from last season’s round of 16 elimination at the hands of Szeged, will face some well-known foes in their section and captain Uwe Gensheimer acknowledged his team were looking at a formidable task.

In order to have any chance of holding their own against Barcelona, Rhein-Neckar Löwen will need to contain the menacing backcourt quartet comprising Jicha, Kopljar, Siarhei Rutenka and Kiril Lazarov, as well as Icelandic winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson.

At the other end, they will have to keep turnovers down to a minimum and take advantage of any fast break opportunities which might come their way.


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br
 
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