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16.09.2015, 17:40
“The strongest group ever in the history of the competition”
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GROUP A PREVIEW: One half are aiming for the VELUX EHF FINAL4, the others are ‘merely’ aiming for the knock-out stages - plenty interesting ties await us

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

"The strongest group ever in the history of the competition"

General preview of Group A

One half of Group A are aiming for the VELUX EHF FINAL4, the others are ‘merely’ aiming for the knock-out stages, and with even six teams proceeding from the new playing system, two will miss out on their goals.

“This group is the strongest ever in the history of the EHF Champions League,” said Sabine Holdorf-Schust, director of THW Kiel after the draw event in Vienna, and this was all before PSG Paris had started their shopping spree.

There is no lack of star power with five former or current IHF World Handball Players of the year and three former or current Champions League top scorers among the Group A teams.

In terms of transfers, the French champions did all they could to push themselves to Cologne: Noka Serdarusic as the new coach and the Karabatic brothers carry all the hopes of this star-studded team.

“If not now, then when?” said TV expert Francois-Xavier Houlet, when asked if Paris would make it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 for the first time after missing out on it twice in a row.

Both times, MVM Veszprem was where it ended for the Parisians, now they have the chance to take revenge in the group phase.

The 2015 Champions League finalist and SEHA Liga winner from Hungary have boosted their squad particularly with Icelandic playmaker Aron Palmarsson (MVP of the 2014 VELUX EHF FINAL4).

Palmarsson is the third former Kiel player after Momir Ilic and Christian Zeitz to have made the move to Hungary. And those three will face their ex-club again.

If we look at their transfers, Kiel has lost power, despite signing goalkeeper Niklas Landin from Löwen.

But losing Palmarsson, Rasmus Lauge (to Flensburg)  and Filip Jicha to Barcelona means a setback for the back court axis, in which Domagoj Duvnjak and Joan Canellas will have to carry more responsibility, as young new arrival Christian Dissinger will need some time to adapt.

And in the left wing position, Dominik Klein and Torsten Jansen are currently out due to injuries.

And Flensburg? The 2014 Champions League winners have bolstered their squad not only with Lauge, but with three arrivals from Hamburg: Henrik Toft Hansen, Petar Djordjic and Kentin Mahe - but the French playmaker (MVP of the EHF Cup Finals 2015) will miss the start of the Champions League due to an ankle injury.

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

From the width of the squad, Flensburg even seem to be stronger than Kiel and openly speak about the possible qualification for Cologne.

Those four are seen to be ‘seeded’ for the Last 16 or the quarter-final, for which the group winner qualifies directly. Zagreb, Celje, Besiktas and Plock fight for the two remaining spots for the knock-out stage.

Zagreb again lost some key players, but coach Veselin Vujovic is confident that his rejuvenated team will can do it all again in their 22nd appearance in the EHF Champions League. Last season, Zagreb managed to cause major upsets on home ground by beating Kiel, Paris and Kolding.

Celje (like Veszprem are for the 21st time part of the Champions League) have the same structure in their team, composed by highly skilled Slovenian talents.

Coach Brank Tamse can count on some experienced players too - as Celje have proved in the previous seasons, when they beat Kiel and Hamburg at home, however, their away performances are much weaker than at home.

The same holds true for the Oilers from Plock, who were the only team in the 2014/15 season, which managed to beat Barcelona. With some new arrivals and Manuel Cadenas as their coach they should be able to make it to the Last 16 again.

So Besiktas Istanbul - in their second ever appearance in the group phase - seems to be the big underdog, after the Turkish champions had only won one of ten matches in the previous season.

And from the names of their mostly Serbian internationals added to the squad the chance of an upset does not seem too likely.

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

HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb vs THW Kiel
Thursday, 19:00 hrs. local time, live on ehfTV

354 days ago, it was THE sensation in the opening round of the group phase, now RK PPD Zagreb hope to do it again: The Croatian record winners beat Kiel by 27:25 a result, which was key to Zagreb making it into the quarter-final of the VELUX EHF Champions League.

But, on the other hand, this was a wake-up call for THW, as the three-time Champions League winners went on to win 11 straight matches.

Now, former Zagreb player Domagoj Duvnjak and his Kiel team mates shall be aware of the home strengths of their host.

However, this was no accident as Zagreb also beat Paris and Kolding on home ground - and gave Barcelona a run for their money in the quarter-final home leg.

The coaches head-to-head could be the decisive factor to this opening match - both famous, but both have completely different styles.

As players, Alfred Gislason (Kiel) and Veselin Vujovic (Zagreb) duelled in the Spanish league, now they duel on the bench for the first time.

The Croatian young guns are highly motivated and their arena will be filled with more than 10,000 frantic fans for the opening match of Group A.

Both sides already met in pre-season preparation, and Kiel were the lucky winners in the Sparkassencup against Zagreb. “Their team is brilliant,” said Gislason after the test.

Kiel’s pre-season was shaky and they were clearly defeated by Veszprem and Barcelona - but then they beat Flensburg in the German Super Cup.

In the league, they lost to Flensburg one week ago.

The main focus will be on the new THW back court axis without Palmarsson and Jicha - and how Zagreb can cope with it.

Two quite young goalkeepers will try to make an impression on the match - rising star Filip Ivic and Niklas Landin, who despite his age has a huge international experience.

Both sides have to cope with injury problems: Zagreb has to replace i.e. Stipe Mandalinic, while Kiel will still miss Dominik Klein for some months. His replacement Torsten Jansen nearly missed the whole preparation due to an injury, so young gun Rune Dahmke will most likely start on the left wing.

Orlen Wisla Plock vs MVM Veszprém
Saturday, 16:00 hrs. local times, live on ehfTV

In total seven Spanish coaches are involved in the group phase of the 2015/16 VELUX EHF Champions League season - but only two are contracted by clubs in Group A.

In the first round, Manuel Cadenas (also Spanish national team coach) will face Carlos Antonio Ortega in an all-Spanish coaches’ duel in Plock.

The Polish runners-ups and the Hungarian champions in addition count on some Spanish players- so a lot of Spanish eyes will be present in the Orlen Arena.

Ortega’s squad are the slight favourites - as the 2015 Champions League finalists have already proved their strengths in the pre-season with eleven wins in 12 matches, including beating THW Kiel.

Their only defeat occurred in the final of the IHF Super Globe in Doha, Qatar, when Veszprem were surprisingly defeated by Füchse Berlin.

While the Hungarian side bolstered their squad i.e. with Aron Palmarsson (Kiel), Plock lost two important players in Mariusz Jurkiewicz (Kielce) and Kamil Syprzak (Barcelona).

Cadenas signed some tall shooters instead, and hopes for a result like in the previous season, when Plock managed to beat Veszprem in the home match of the Last 16 by 34:33, but were eliminated by a 26:31 defeat in the Veszprem Arena.

“We want to go to Cologne again, but we know how hard it will be in the group phase.

“Whichever team will top the group in the end, will come down to good results in the away matches,” said Ortega.

In the previous season - prior to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 - Veszprem were only beaten twice, both times in away matches at Rhein Neckar Löwen - and Plock.

The Polish runners-ups showed their quality mostly on home ground, beating the 2015 Champions League winner Barcelona and their forerunners Flensburg in 2014/15.

After two straight qualifications for the Last 16, Plock aims for the same again: “So winning our home matches is a must,” said Cadenas.

SG Flensburg-Handewitt vs Paris Saint-Germain Handball
Saturday, 17:30 hrs. Local times, live on ehfTV

The man with the mask will mostly likely miss his first Champions League match in a PSG jersey: After his cheek bone fracture, Nikola Karabatic has been wearing a mask to train, but this particular mask is not allowed in matches of the VELUX EHF Champions League.

So if the current World Handball Player of the Year does not have a miraculous healing of his injury, PSG will miss their new top star.

On the other side of the fence, Karabatic’s team mate from the French national team, Kentin Mahe, will be out too after his ankle injury. So both top signings are supposed to be out for the first clash of titans in Group A.

Flensburg are hoping to be the first stumbling block for PSG, the main contender for the group win.

Ten years ago, both sides faced for the one and only time in the Champions League - and on Saturday, nobody expects the 37:24 result, Flensburg took in 2005.


 

In the pre-season, both sides showed some remarkable results, though Flensburg were beaten by Kiel in the German Super Cup and sensationally lost their Bundesliga home match against Melsungen, one week after they had beaten THW in the league.

Paris started their mission on domestic ground successfully against Nimes.

The match will bring two of the best goalkeepers on court in the Flens-Arena: Mattias Andersson (Flensburg) and Thierry Omeyer (PSG). In the previous season, PSG lost both matches against German teams (THW) in the group phase, now the team of new coach Noka Serdarusic will try again to break this curse.

For Serdarusic (Flensburg coach from 1990 to 1993) it will be the second visit to Flensburg after a defeat with Celje in 2010 and after he had been coaching their local rivals Kiel for nearly 15 years.

His counterpart Ljubomir Vranjes, who had a PSG offer one year ago, just extended his contract in Flensburg until 2020. “Paris are the big favourites in our group, but on home ground and backed by our fans, we hope to have a good start,” Vranjes said.

Besiktas Jimnastik Kulubu vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko
Saturday, 18:00 hrs. local times, live on ehfTV

Never before in their club’s history have both teams crossed swords in an official match - but this premiere will already give a hint for the rest of the season.

If Besiktas win, they can prove that they can stand the heat, if they lose, Celje will have already clocked two important points on the way to the Last 16.

Celje have won only one away match in the previous season, at Chechov, Russia. Besiktas only won a single group phase match - on home ground against Alingsas, Sweden.

In terms of international experience, Celje are far ahead - and they can count on new arrival Ivan Gajic in goal. At Besiktas, the tactics of coach Branko Tamse will be high speed with furious counter-attacks.

Both sides do not have the tall shooters, but the Celje back court players are seen to be stronger in one vs one situations.
 
“We will take any chance to proceed to the Last 16,” is the clear motto of the Turkish champions, who were awarded a straight spot for the first time ever - after they had made it to the group phase in 2014 as winner of their qualification tournament.


TEXT: Björn Pazen / bc
 
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