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27.02.2016, 09:28
Battle for the final spaces in the Last 16 begins
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ROUND PREVIEW: Spanish-Ukrainian and Danish-Belarusian encounters in the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase Knockout Play-Offs.
 

Battle for the final spaces in the Last 16 begins

The final places for the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 are at stake when the two top teams of Group C and D from the group phase knockout, meet for their first leg of the play-off this weekend.

Ukrainian side HC Motor Zaporozhye will see Naturhouse La Rioja as favourites ahead of their visit to Spain on Saturday (27 February) while there is mutual respect between Skjern Handbold and Belarus side HC Meshkov Brest ahead of their meeting in Denmark on Sunday (28 February).

VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase Knockout – Group C + D Play-Off, First Legs

Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) vs. HC Motor Zaporozhye (UKR)
Saturday, 27 February, 17.00 hrs local time, live on ehtv.com

Spanish powerhouse La Rioja welcome Ukrainian champions Zaporozhye in their Group C + D play-off at the Palacio de los Deportes de la Rioja.

These two teams have never met before in any European competitions, Group D toppers Zaporozhye reached the last 16 of the VELUX EHF Champions League back in 2013/14, whilst their hosts from Logrono - who finished second in Group C - made the best 16 teams last year, before being eliminated by Veszprem.

The Ukrainians travel to Spain with the reputation of being a high-scoring team combined with a problematic defence at times and their La Rioja opponents, built around Jota Gonzalez recorded 298 goals in the group stage, two more than Zaporozhye.

The statistics alone suggest a spectacular clash on Saturday as Motor have lost just two matches in the whole season, both away VELUX EHF Champions League encounters. Their recent league win against ZTR Zaporozhye, in their local derby often compared to the atmosphere, quality and occasion of a VELUX EHF Champions League game, gives the team confidence ahead of their trip to Logrono.

“We feel we are on the right track,” said left wing Zakhar Denisov after Motor’s last league game. “We did not have problems in attack in the past, but now we are becoming more confident in defence.” His coach, Nikolay Stepanets, warned his team about the euphoria surrounding the game, calling for focus ahead of one of their most crucial matches of the season.

The Ukrainian side will feel more confident now that La Rioja’s best scorer in the group phase Cristiano Malmagro, with 68 goals, has now left the club, and there is much at stake for the Spaniards, who will rely on their wing play through Pedro Rodriguez and Angel Fernandez, in a partnership which has scored 85 goals already this season.

With Richard Kappelin in goal, experienced players like Ruben Garabaya, silverware thanks to the Copa Asobal in their hands, several new singings and fine form picked up after intensive training during the international break, La Rioja can also rely on the miracle of their Palacio.

La Rioja have a strong 4-0-1 record at home this season, whilst Motor are 2-1-2 on the road, with their crucial last draw against Skjern earning them top spot and avoiding Meshkov Brest.

Two strong offensive teams will meet on Saturday and the key to the match will be the defence of the Ukrainian team and how they manage to handle these duties against the Spanish favourites.

Skjern Handbold (DEN) vs HC Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Sunday 28 February, 15.15 local time, live on ehftv.com

Just like the meeting between La Rioja and Motor, this match will feature two teams who meet for the first time in a European match as they enter the Skjern Bank Arena on Sunday afternoon.

Having finished second in Group D, Skjern have the home advantage in the first match against the winners of Group C, for whom Skjern coach Ole Nørgaard has huge respect.

“Brest have national team players in all positions and even on the bench too,” said Nørgaard to ehfCl.com. “There is no doubt that we will have be at our absolutely best to have a chance over two matches against them, but recent years we have seem more and more eastern European teams emerging on the European handball scene.

“We already know Veszprém, Vardar and Kielce,” he continued. “But Brest are definitely right behind those, and if we are to have a chance to proceed to the Last 16, a home win on Sunday is a must at the very least.”

His adversary, Brest coach Sergey Bebeshko feels his team is well prepared for the task ahead.

“We have studied Skjern well,” said Bebeshko, who will be missing centre back Alexander Tioumentsev in Skjern. “Their team is good and they play typically Scandinavian handball with a good back court line, technically skilled wings and effective counter attacks.

“I am impressed with their physical strength too but our main task is to stop their back court players, tie their line players up and prevent their counter attacks."

 

TEXT: Tomas Cuncik/Peter Bruun/amc
 
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