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04.03.2016, 15:30
Top five face moment of truth in final round
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GROUP B PREVIEW: VELUX EHF Champions League holders FC Barcelona Lassa need at least draw against Rhein-Neckar Löwen if they are to hold on to the top spot and book an automatic quarter-final berth

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

Top five face moment of truth in final round

One could not have written a more exciting script for the final round of the group phase matches, with the top five teams in the section jostling to move up the ladder or stay above each other.

The crunch encounter is in Barcelona, where the holders need to avoid a home defeat by Rhein-Neckar Löwen in order to skip the Last 16 and seal a quarter-final berth.

Group B

HC Vardar (MKD) vs Montpellier HB (FRA)
Saturday 5 March, 17:30 hrs local time; live on ehfTV

With results in other games going their way, Montpellier have secured a sixth-place finish and thus a knockout stage berth, despite their poor form in recent matches.

The French side have won only two of their last nine games in the group, but crucially both victories came against debutants IFK Kristianstad who are two points behind them and cannot catch up due to an inferior head-to-head record.

The situation is somewhat different with Vardar. The Macedonian side are fourth and can move one place up if they beat Montpellier, provided that RNL, who are a point above them in third, lose at reigning champions Barcelona.

A win would also give Vardar a much-needed confidence boost ahead of the Last 16, where a tough Group A rival awaits them.

“We are in a good position but also in a tough spot because we simply have to win, while Montpellier have nothing to lose,” Vardar’s Spanish coach Raul Gonzales told a news conference in Skopje.

Their captain, Filip Lazarov, added: “Montpellier are a good team and are coming to Skopje devoid of any pressure, hence it’s up to us to make sure that they don’t spring an upset.”

“They are a team worthy of  respect and I am sure their ambitions are to come away with a win.”

Montpellier, who are fourth in the French top division, 10 points behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain, warmed up for the clash with a 30:27 home win over Nimes.

Their Slovenian imports Dragan Gajic and Jure Dolenec shone, the former scoring nine goals and the latter adding seven to keep them in the top four.

“I rested several players to have them fresh for the game with Vardar, but I am very pleased with the performance and the result,” Montpellier coach Patrice Canayer said after the match.

“It was a tough match against a very strong team.”   

FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs Rhein Neckar Löwen (GER)
Saturday 5 March, 20:30 hrs local time; live on ehfTV

It is crunch time for the reigning champions, who must come away with something against Mannheim’s Lions if they are to keep the top spot and progress straight into the quarter-finals.

Barcelona are two points ahead of second-placed Kielce, who have a better head-to-head record than the Spanish side and will overhaul them if Barca are beaten and the Polish outfit beat Szeged at home.

The other motive for Barcelona is to gain revenge for a 22:21 defeat by RNL in the opening round, which set the stage for a fascinating race for the top spot throughout a thrilling group phase.

Barcelona tuned up their engines for the make-or- break encounter with a routine 36:26 Spanish league win at Guadalajara, which stretched their impressive run to 20 victories from as many games in the domestic championship.

Winger Victor Tomas and right back Kiril Lazarov led an array of scorers with six goals each, underlining the depth of Barcelona’s roster which will need to be at their best against Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

The German side continued their enthralling three-way league title race with THW Kiel and SG Flensburg-Handewitt, staying on top of the Bundesliga with a 34:24 home win over Melsungen.

The result left Löwen on 38 points from 22 games, ahead of Kiel on goal difference and two points above third-placed Flensburg, who face an equally tough and crucial Match of the Week visit to Paris Saint-Germain in the other section.

Andy Schmid was in staggering form, scoring a game-high 13 goals, with veteran winger Uwe Gensheimer adding nine. Their prolific form will certainly be a welcome boost ahead of the tough visit to Barcelona.

The Germans side are likely to require a win in order to stay third, as fourth fourth-placed Vardar, who are a point behind them, are strong favourites against Montpellier at home.

Fifth-placed Szeged are also lurking, as they are only two points behind RNL and have a better head-to-head record, having beaten them 30:24 at home after a 30:25 defeat in Germany.   

KIF Kolding København (DEN) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Sunday 6 March, 16:50 hrs local time; live on ehfTV

The match between the group’s bottom two teams should still produce plenty of fireworks, being a Scandinavian derby where pride and bragging rights are always at stake.

Neither team can avoid a group phase exit and both can consider themselves unlucky to have missed out on a Last 16 berth.

Kolding and Kristianstad have produced some exhilarating matches in the group phase, suffering several tight defeats which ultimately cost them a spot in the business end of Europe’s premier club handball competition.

The Danish side paid the price for a poor start, generated by a 33:26 defeat in the opening fixture at Kristianstad, which, in turn, marked a flying start for the Swedish debutants.

A 33:31 home win over Vardar briefly reignited Kolding’s hopes of turning around their fortunes, but it turned out to be nothing more than a flash in the pan until they ground out an ultimately futile 27:26 home defeat of Montpellier.

Kristianstad, on the other hand, punched well above their weight in some of the games, notably a 32:29 home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen which came on the back of an unfortunate 34:32 defeat at Barcelona.

However, a 30:29 home defeat by Montpellier, who edged them to a sixth-place finish, proved crucial before they snatched a 35:35 home draw against KS Vive Tauron Kielce.

Kolding warmed up for the clash with a 32:29 Danish league win over Skanderborg which kept them third in the standings, three points behind leaders Holstebro and one adrift of second-placed Skjern.

Kristianstad stayed at the pinnacle of Sweden’s top flight after a 27:22 home defeat of Ricoh, which kept them eight points above closest rivals Alingsas.   

KS Vive Tauron Kielce vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Sunday 6 March, 18:00 local time; live on ehfTV

While roaring on the Polish champions to get the better of plucky Szeged on home court, Kielce fans will also be hoping that Rhein-Neckar Löwen can pull off an upset at Barcelona which would richly play into their team’s hands.

Kielce can win the group and catapult themselves straight into the last eight, but only if they beat their Hungarian rivals and RNL beat Barca.

The combination of results would leave Kielce and Barcelona tied on 21 points at the top of a fiercely competitive section, with the Polish side nosing ahead on a better head-to-head record.

Szeged, who played well throughout the group phase, have their own objectives to achieve, as a win could see them climb two places up the table to third.

They are two points behind the third-placed Lions and one adrift of fourth-placed Vardar, meaning that a win at Kielce could see them leapfrog both their rivals if they should slip up.

Kielce warmed up for the clash with a comfortable 37:20 home win over Slask in the Polish Superliga, which kept them two points ahead of perennial rivals Orlen Wisla Plock in their neck-to-neck race for the league title.

“I am very pleased with Mariusz Jurkiewicz’s performance and the fact that he spent 50 minutes on the court,” Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev said after the game.

“It’s a good sign for us and I am also happy with the performances of the young players who got a chance, although their defending was better than their attacking.”

Jurkiewicz, who returned to action after a knee injury, scored six goals from seven shots and was bettered only by Croatian winger Ivan Čupić, who netted seven from eight as Kielce ran riot against the visitors.

Szeged also enjoyed a good dress rehearsal for the all-important tie, beating Balatonfuredi 36:28 away to stay top of the Hungarian first division, four points ahead of closest rivals Tatabanya.   


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor
 
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