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04.03.2016, 22:50
Three in the hunt for the jackpot at Group A climax
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FIRST HAND INSIGHT: The fight for the top position in Group A - or why Paris seem to be in the fast lane to Cologne

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Three in the hunt for the jackpot at Group A climax

Resentment, doubts and reservations - the impressions of the new format of the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase were mixed at first. 14 rounds in Groups A and B are too many, everything will be decided earlier, the wheat will be separated from the chaff already before the EHF EURO break and the competition will be protracted in an artificial way.

Now the 14th round is ahead next weekend, and though all teams to make it to the knockout stage from those groups are confirmed, the tension is still palpable, mainly in Group A. Why? Because after 52 matches of this group still three teams can win the “jackpot”.

This “jackpot” is the top position. You skip the Last 16, proceed immediately to the quarter-final, have two match-free weekends end of March and will face the winner of the A5/B4 Last 16 duel, which currently means to duel with Zagreb and Vardar for the ticket to the VELUX EHF FINAL4. A great prize, reward and motivation for Paris, Veszprem and Flensburg.

This trio is still in the race for the top position - but fair enough, it looks more like the duo Paris and Veszprem are the ones. After nine straight victories - their longest ever winning streak in this competition, Flensburg most likely let the prize slip from their hands last Saturday by losing at home against Veszprem.

Punch-drunk Veszprem still fighting for top spot

In boxing terms, the Hungarian side were severely shaken and against the ropes, but the 2014 Champions League winners failed to deliver the knockout punch. Veszprem rose again like Silvester Stallone in “Rocky IV” to take the win.

Next Saturday Veszprem face Plock on home court and you do not need a crystal ball to predict what will happen.

Since 27 April 2013 (29:28 against Kiel in the quarter-finals) Veszprem have won every single match in Europe’s elite competition. On the other hand, Plock did not win their last five matches in this competition and were lucky to qualify for the Last 16 thanks to Zagreb’s win over Celje and there is nothing left to win for the Polish runners-up, as they will definitely finish sixth in Group A.

Assuming that Veszprem will win, PSG and Flensburg know their fate before they will face in the very last group match on Sunday afternoon. In that case, Flensburg are already out of the race for the jackpot. And Paris need to win, as they have lost the direct encounter against Veszprem, a draw is not enough.

Flensburg would have nothing to lose. This can mean that their motivation is quite low and they only want to finish this phase of the competition without any injuries. Or they show desire, pushing Paris to the limit - eager to end a series of failures, as they never won any of four matches on French soil so far. However, PSG has only won one match against a German team on home court in the last ten years.

In general, the individual class of PSG with players like Omeyer, Hansen, Karabatic, Narcisse and Abalo is much stronger than the Flensburg squad. But exactly in situations like those - proved by the victories against Barcelona and Kiel at the 2014 VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne - Flensburg rose. But then, there was something at stake.

Lessons learned since defeat

PSG have the best attacking record of all 16 contenders, the only side with more than 400 goals after 13 rounds. But even their average of 31.3 was not enough in the first meeting of these sides, when they were taught a 39:32 lesson in Flensburg.

Since then, the team has rehearsed, has learnt to cope with injuries, did only lose two matches (at Montpellier/league and Veszprem/Champions League) since then and grew to become a genuine favourite to go all the way.

One key will be the duel of two players, who are aged 39 and 37, but still represented world class: the goalkeepers Thierry Omeyer and Mattias Andersson. Another key is, how and if Flensburg can stop Mikkel Hansen, who is in the form of his life with 100 goals in 13 Champions League matches. And if they manage to restrict him, PSG still have options like Narcisse and Karabatic on that position - another point in favour of the Qatar-powered French champions.

Even taking in account the Flensburg fast-breaks and the extraordinary form Rasmus Lauge is currently in the miracle they hope for is quite far to reach.

But if there is good news for Flensburg, in case they finish in third position: They will not face their northern German rivals THW Kiel in the quarter-finals, after already six duels in four competitions of this season.

But this circumstance might cause the fact that no German team might make it to Cologne. Looking deeply into the crystal ball, those can be the pairings for the quarter-finals, if the German trio proceed: Kiel vs Barcelona, Flensburg vs Kielce and Löwen against PSG. So nothing is guaranteed in that composition.

One good thing in sport is that it is unpredictable, so bring on the weekend, enjoy the matches and the fact that the tension is still here at the climax of the group phase. We can resume all predictions on Sunday night.


TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor
 
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