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08.03.2016, 17:23
Top-of-the-table clashes as Round 3 begins
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ROUND PREVIEW: Norway and Romania reunite for their first meeting since their extra time World Championship 2015 Semi-final in the third round of Women's EHF EURO 2016 Qualification on Wednesday
 

Top-of-the-table clashes as Round 3 begins

The focus is on top-of-the-table clashes and crucial points battles as Round 3 of the Women’s EHF EURO 2016 Qualification gets underway on Wednesday.

2015 world champions Norway take on bronze medallists Romania, Serbia look to move ahead of Czech Republic, and the Netherlands meet Spain for a fast-paced thriller to begin to sort out the top positions in each group.

The crucial battles continue with the third and fourth-ranked teams in each group fighting for points as Lithuania host Belarus and Bulgaria play Austria.

GROUP 1: Lithuania vs Belarus, Wednesday, 19:00 local time in Kaunas

As the two bottom-ranked teams in Group 1, Belarus and Lithuania approach their double-header meeting this week knowing this is crunch time.

But even if one emerges the clear victor from both of the matches, they will face rather big hurdles to finish as one of the top two teams in the group as the current frontrunners are 2015 world champions Norway and bronze medallists at Denmark 2015, Romania.

As Lithuania and Belarus both lost their opening match against each of these European powerhouses, it would seem their best chance is to aim for finishing as the top third-ranked team overall.

Belarus have the edge ahead of the double header considering their decisive wins last time the teams met in 2012. On that occasion Belarus won both of their World Championship qualification games, by 20 and 21-goal margins no less.

GROUP 1: Romania vs Norway, Wednesday, 19:00 local time in Cluj Napoca (live on ehfTV)

This clash promises to be one of the most exciting of the day, as two of the world’s strongest teams meet to contest two points that will be decisive when the table rankings are finalised in June.

For Romania it is also a chance to avenge their semi-final loss to Norway at the World Championship 2015 in December.

The 70-minute match to determine which team would proceed to the final in Denmark was an outstanding showcase of the world-class talent that runs through both of these squads.

Norway won 35:33 in the dying minutes, going on to claim the title as Romania defeated Poland in the bronze medal match to finish third.

The memories of that loss will undoubtedly be fresh in the minds of Romania’s players, but coach Tomas Ryde has already shown his impressive ability to instil confidence in the team and find the best way to harness Cristina Neagu into an unstoppable scoring machine.

The Most Valuable Player at Denmark 2015 scored an incredible 15 goals in their quarter-final win against the hosts, before going on to contribute eight against Norway’s strong defence and superb goalkeepers in the semi.

Kari Grimsbo showed she is a world-title winning keeper when her performance in the first half of the final essentially secured Norway the medal before half-time.

But Katrine Lunde also returns to an otherwise unchanged squad ahead of the qualifiers, presenting an intimidating prospect for even Neagu.

GROUP 2: Czech Republic vs Serbia, Wednesday, 18:00 local time in Zlin

Though Czech Republic and Serbia are equal on four points after two wins each, against fellow Group 2 teams Ukraine and Italy, the historical results favour a win for Serbia.

The 2013 world champions have a stronger history of participation at the final EHF EURO tournament, and came out on top in the one previous head-to-head encounter, at the EHF EURO 2012.

But Serbia are still overshadowed by a question mark with a number of big stars – such as Andrea Lekic and Dragana Cvijic – missing, a new-look squad changed since the World Championship 2015, and a coach on debut with the national team.

“It is the newly found energy in our team that inspires us to set the right foundation for the challenges ahead. I’m confident we are working towards a positive start,” says coach Dragica Djuric, who stepped in to replace Sasa Boskovic after Denmark 2015.

Wednesday’s match will therefore not only be an important chance for one team to take control of the group, but will also prove a barometer for Djuric as she looks to Serbia’s future.

GROUP 3: Bulgaria vs Austria, Wednesday, 18:00 local time in Gabrovo

Austria and Bulgaria both enter Wednesday’s match with a tally of zero on the table. Despite hosting rights for Bulgaria, Austria’s comparative experience should prove crucial in deciding who owns the two points at the final whistle.

Bulgaria came to the EHF EURO 2016 Qualification as one of the two teams qualified from the first phase. Wednesday’s hosts are therefore expected to find a challenge in Austria, particularly if left back Beate Schneffknecht, who is suffering from a bruised rib, is fit to play at full strength.

"I hope that Beata will fully recover quickly. Without her our game against Bulgaria would be on the edge, but I'm confident that she will be able to play,” says Austria coach Herbert Müller, who knows Bulgaria’s biggest threat is back-court player Elizabeth Omorogie.

“She is a very dangerous player who can play on all backcourt positions. She is also the team leader and one of Bulgaria's best shooters.”

GROUP 3: Netherlands vs Spain, Wednesday, 19:00 local time in Almere

The Netherlands enter their match against Spain riding an unprecedented wave of success, which saw them win the silver medal at the World Championship 2015.

The Netherlands, who finished seventh at the EHF EURO 2014 and did not qualify for the 2013 World Championship, have shown dramatic improvement over recent years.

“We have a young, dynamic team whose potential is showing more – even faster than we expected,” said coach Henk Groener ahead of the team’s first ever World Championship Semi-final, against Poland.

Groener has made few changes to his successful squad from Denmark 2015, with goalkeeper Annick Lipman and right wing Ailly Luciano the only additions, replacing Jasmina Jankovic and left wing Sanne Hoekstra respectively.

Spain on the other hand, are still dealing with their disappointing Last 16 exit at Denmark 2015. The EHF EURO 2014 silver medallists are a strong team who expected more at the World Championship, and the experienced players will be eager to make amends for December’s performance.

Both teams come into the game with four points courtesy of two wins, and the double-header this week will most likely prove crucial in determining the group winners.

GROUP 5: Finland vs Slovakia, Wednesday, 18:30 local time in Vantaa

Finland qualified for this stage of the EHF EURO 2016 through Qualification Phase One, alongside Bulgaria. The Scandinavian team have only made it to this phase once before, in 2006, and are eager to continue their recent streak of improvement.

Slovakia are the only group opponents Finland have any experience against, though of their four encounters, none have ended in favour of Wednesday evening’s hosts.

Slovakia are therefore the firm favourites to take the two points here, and the 12th-place finishers at the EHF EURO 2014 are ready to fight hard for their ticket to Sweden by adding to their tally on Wednesday and again on Saturday.

“To finish second in the group will be extremely difficult. From this point of view, the two matches against Finland are crucial,” says Slovakia coach Dusan Poloz. “Four points in the standings after the matches against Finland is a must.” 

GROUP 5: Poland vs Hungary, Wednesday, 20:30 local time in Koszalin

Poland versus Hungary is another story of revenge for Denmark 2015: It was Poland that knocked Hungary out of the World Championship in December, when they defeated the EHF EURO 2012 bronze medallists 24:23 in the Last 16.

The result of the defeat was Hungary missing a spot at the Olympic Qualification Tournaments to be held in March, and a farewell to head coach Andras Nemeth.

Nemeth is yet to be replaced, with the coaches of Hungary’s two top women’s club teams – Ambros Martin of Györ and Gabor Elek of FTC – stepping in temporarily to guide the team through the EHF EURO 2016 qualification.

Martin and Elek have named a revitalised team with a few notable changes, such as Aniko Kovacsics being listed in her rightful position as playmaker as oppose to left wing, where she has been playing when on court for Hungary.

The match has special significance for Poland, who also nurse fresh disappointment from Denmark 2015, where they finished fourth.

The game against Hungary forms part of the 750th anniversary celebrations of the town of Koszalin, and the team’s Danish head coach Kim Rasmussen therefore expects a great atmosphere.

“Koszalin is a town living handball. I know the local fans from Super League matches. We want the two points. This virtually ensures us through to the next European Championship. That is why the support of the fans is needed so much,” Rasmussen told the Polish Handball Federation website.

GROUP 6: Russia vs Denmark, Wednesday, 19:00 local time in Astrakhan

Yet another clash of the titans sees Russia welcome Denmark, who also have a score to settle after the World Championship.

Russia sailed through Denmark 2015 as the only side to win all of their matches – until they were knocked out by Poland in the quarter-finals, the same stage where Denmark also suffered a one-goal loss that sent them to the 5-8 play-offs.

Denmark and Russia met in the match for fifth place, through most of which Denmark led until Russia stormed home to a four-goal win.

Denmark will therefore be prepared to play at the top of their game when they take to the court on Wednesday. But it is difficult to avoid giving the edge to Russia, who count seven Rostov-Don players among their ranks against a Denmark team depleted by injuries. 

Rostov-Don were one of the first to secure their place in the Women’s EHF Champions League Quarter-Finals, proceeding through the group phase and main round without losing a match, while playmaker Ekaterina Ilina is ranked third on the top scorers list with 80 goals.

Despite a disappointing end to their Denmark 2015 campaign, Russia are certainly in form and it would seem only a matter of time before their next major success.

GROUP 7: Germany vs France, Wednesday, 19:30 local time in Bietigheim Bissingen

The final top-of-the-table clash of Wednesday evening sees another rematch of a recent meeting. Germany and France also met as recently as December, in the group phase of the World Championship, when France steamrolled their opponents to record a shocking 30:20 win.

Germany went on to be eliminated by Norway in the eighth-finals, thereby losing their chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.

“Our women’s team is currently in the same situation as our men’s team was two years ago. They were down, we started to focus on younger players – and the team proved in a never expected way that it is possible to keep up with the top of the world in such a short time,” says Wolfgang Sommerfeld, Sports Director of the German Handball Federation.

Germany team captain Clara Woltering says the team are aiming to ride the wave of success left in the wake of the men’s EHF EURO 2016 victory. But they will face a tough prospect in the form of France, as new head coach Olivier Krumbholz looks forward to two victories in the double header this week followed by a successful Olympic Qualification Tournament.

Krumbholz has made only one change from December’s Denmark 2015 squad, with left back Alice Leveque replaced by right wing Blandine Dancette.


TEXT: Courtney Gahan / ts
 
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