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08.01.2016, 16:40
Buducnost head star-studded field eyeing the trophy
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GROUP 2 PREVIEW: Champions League holders Buducnost will start their main round campaign as favourites to reach the quarter-finals and progress to the Women’s EHF FINAL4 in Budapest

»EHF CL Channel »2015-16 Women's CL
»Main Round
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Buducnost head star-studded field eyeing the trophy

The Women’s EHF Champions League main round is just around the corner and there is no doubt that handball fans across Europe, still digesting the impressions from last month’s World Championship, are eager to see their favourite clubs back in action after the month-long international break.

The proverbial “group of death” is probably one of the most exploited clichés to describe a tough pool, but it really is the solitary accurate depiction of what Group B has in store.

Of course, its composition is a mouth-watering one, offering a plethora of high-octane clashes between the continent’s top teams, and it would be no surprise if all four teams reached the Women’s EHF FINAL4 on 7/8 May in Budapest from this group.

Reigning champions Buducnost will start as the section’s favourites to secure a top-four finish and hence advance into the premier club competition’s knockout stage, having carried seven out of a possible eight points from the group matches.

With the bulk of their roster still licking their wounds after Montenegro’s dramatic 26:25 quarter-final defeat by Norway in the World Championship, Buducnost will be eager to shake off the disappointment as quickly as possible.

They will surely see a rampant start in the main round as the best way to bounce back from the national team’s elimination before the medal rounds.

The one player whose spirit will be high no matter what is their Romanian left back Cristina Neagu, who returned to Podgorica with a bronze medal from the 24-nation tournament in Denmark, leading her country’s impressive campaign with a string of superb performances.

Hungarian giants Györi Audi ETO KC, who have locked horns with Buducnost in several spectacular clashes over the past few years, will also expect to advance into the last eight after taking five points into the main round, like Romanian high-flyers CSM Bucuresti.

Fourth-placed Vardar, who carried four points, will also view reaching the quarter-finals as a minimum requirement for a talent-packed outfit boasting a myriad of the game’s household names.

Györ, however, will sorely miss their towering left back Zsuzsanna Tomori, who suffered a serious knee injury in the world championship, which in turn dealt a bitter blow to Hungary as they were eliminated by Poland in the Last 16.

But with Anita Görbicz enjoying a second lease of life and playing some of the best handball of her career since the start of the season, Györ should still be able to navigate the group’s rocky waters and pull through to the last eight.

The same goes for CSM Bucuresti and Vardar, whose Serbian duo of Andrea Lekic and Sanja Damnjanovic will be fresh and rested for the main round clashes after missing the world championship as they pulled out of the Serbian national team last year.

Denmark’s FC Midtjylland, who have three points, are lurking in fifth place at the moment and will certainly be ready to pounce at any opportunity to break into the top four, should some of their more heralded rivals slip up.

Sixth-placed Sävehof, who have no points, have in all likelihood achieved their season’s objective by reaching the main round. However, the Swedish side could spring an upset or two as they are the group’s only team totally devoid of any pressure to earn a quarter-final berth.

The section’s opening main round games should quickly light up the competition, with an enthralling triple-header on the menu.

GROUP B       

Györi Audi ETO KC (HUN) vs Buducnost (MNE)
Saturday, 9 January, 16:00 local time, live on ehfTV

One could not have asked for a more explosive opening to the main round, with the winners of the last four EHF Champions League titles taking centre stage.

Buducnost, who won their maiden title in 2012 and then repeated the feat in 2015, will be given a stern test by 2013 and 2014 winners Györ after the Hungarian giants came through a tough preliminary group.

Having advanced alongside Vardar and Midtjylland, battle-hardened Gyor will be ready for whatever Buducnost can throw at them in the cauldron of the Hungarian side’s home court, where fans create a fervent atmosphere.

The match could also produce an interesting return to Györ by Buducnost right back Katarina Bulatovic, who led the Montenegrin powerhouse to 2012 glory before capturing the 2014 title with Gyor and then once again steering Buducnost to the trophy last season.

The 31-year old Bulatovic, who has four Champions League medals in her trophy cabinet as she won her inaugural title in 2007 with Danish side Slagelse DT, is still Buducnost’s driving force, although the Montenegrin giants boast a number of other top performers able to pull the strings.

With Tomori sidelined because of a long-term knee injury, Gyor will have to rely on the playmaking skills of the evergreen Anita Görbicz, whose outstanding performances in last month’s world championship went unrewarded as Hungary suffered a heart-breaking 24:23 defeat by Poland in the Last 16.

With Buducnost knocked out in the last eight just as painfully by Norway as they lost 26:25 to the eventual winners, fatigue should not be a factor and both sides will be keen to hit the ground running.

Like Gyor, Buducnost will also not be at full strength as Suzana Lazovic and influential winger Radmila Petrovic will miss the start of the main round campaign through injury and illness, respectively.

However, the Montenegrin side was beaming with confidence ahead of the visit to Györ and some of their star players emphasised they were looking forward to battle.

“We know Györ very well and I am sure we will be ready for them, but one must remember that every main round game is crucial because there is little or no room for error,” towering Serbian pivot Dragana Cvijic, who missed the World Championship after pulling out of the Serbian national team, told Buducnost’s official website.

“Györ are a top quality team who have been among the best in Europe for many years but we have a system that has also yielded results so there will be no anxiety in our ranks,” she added.

Croatian goalkeeper Marta Zderic was just as upbeat.

“I couldn’t wait to get back to Podgorica after the World Championship and we are all raring to go. It’s a difficult main round group as all the teams are very strong, most of all Györ who will be a very tough prospect on home court, but we should have nothing to worry about if we are on top of our game,” she said.

Buducnost warmed up for the clash with a 29:23 win against the Italian national team in a friendly, with Cvijic scoring six goals while Djurdjina Jaukovic netted five.  

HC Vardar (MKD) vs CSM Bucuresti (ROU)
Saturday, 9 January, 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

Having endured a patchy preliminary group stage in which they were twice beaten by Györ, Macedonian giants Vardar will hope to make a good start in the main round as they desperately need the points to stay in the top four.

In CSM Bucuresti, they face a banana skin as the Romanian side, who were founded in 2007, proved their worth on the big stage after winning their maiden national league title in 2015.

CSM finished runners-up in their group with nine points from six games, having held the mighty Buducnost to a 23:23 draw in Podgorica after suffering a 28:22 setback at home, the only three points they dropped in the group matches.

Two sound wins over Savehof and the tie in Podgorica enabled CSM to carry five points into the main round as their star-studded outfit, boasting imports such as Sweden’s Isabelle Gulden and Linnea Torstenson as well as a talented Brazilian trio, displayed a combination of speed, skill and ironclad defending when required.

Buoyed by a third-place finish in the World Championship, the club’s home-grown Romanian contingent led by imposing pivot Oana Manea will head into the clash with their spirits high.

Vardar, for their part, will see this as a must-win game in order to stay ahead of fifth-placed Midtjylland and make inroads towards the top of the six-team group.

Their roster, boasting a myriad of top quality names, will need to fire on all cylinders if they are to overcome a stern test of their credentials from CSM, a team capable of slugging it out with Europe’s best.

With Serbians Andrea Lekic and Sanja Damnjanovic in perfect shape after a month-long rest as they missed Denmark, Vardar should have the edge in their Jane Sandanski arena, with the home fans bound to generate a cracking atmosphere.

Vardar’s confidence could be boosted by a prestigious award they received as the Macedonian women’s team of the year in 2015, having finished third in last season’s competition while they also won the domestic double.

FC Midtjylland (DEN) vs IK Sävehof (SWE)
Sunday, 10 January, 17:00 local time, live on ehfTV

The Scandinavian clash should offer all the thrills and spills typical for a derby of this nature, with Denmark’s Midtjylland favourites at home against their Swedish rivals Sävehof.

Both teams nurture free-flowing handball based on tireless running, plenty of fast breaks and good use of the wings, hence fans in Ikast should expect a high-tempo encounter garnished with a barrage of entertaining moments.

Although Midtjylland have a mountain to climb if they are to spring an upset and advance into the quarter-finals, the Danish side will feel they have a very realistic chance of defying the odds after a pair of excellent performances against Györ already this season.

Especially impressive was their 26:21 away win over the Hungarian side and if they can reproduce that level more consistently, Midtjylland could progress at the expense of more heralded opposition.

With that in mind, they will view the home clash with the main round group’s bottom team Sävehof as a must-win game, and therein lays the danger for Midtjylland who are prone to sudden dips in form.

The Swedish outfit will make the short trip to Denmark devoid of any pressure, as they have already matched their fans’ expectations by reaching the main round.

That does not mean Sävehof have no ambitions to punch above their weight in the business end of the competition, but the reality is that any points they can muster in the main round will be a bonus.

FCM enjoyed a perfect prelude to the start of their campaign, having come from behind to win the Danish cup with a 28:26 win over traditional rivals Viborg in the final.

Veronica Kristiansen led the way with seven goals, while Trine Ostergaard, Johanna Ahlm and Stine Jorgensen chipped in with five each. The same trio will be expected to pull the strings against Sävehof, while coach Helle Thomsen praised her team for a valiant effort.

“We've only had national team players at home for two days, so it was impossible to know exactly where they were mentally and physically. That was the first battle we had to win and the result showed this in no uncertain terms.

“It gives us confidence boost in terms of winning on a bad day, as it was today, and so especially to win a final.”

Having shrugged off the disappointment of not reaching the world championship medal rounds on home court, FCM’s Danish national team stars appear set to undertake an equally tough challenge of achieving some success at international level. 


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor
 
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