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26.04.2016, 16:50
How have PSG turned into genuine contenders?
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FIRST-HAND INSIGHT: A number of factors have transformed Paris Saint-Germain into a team on the verge of their first VELUX EHF FINAL4
 

How have PSG turned into genuine contenders?

In only their third participation in Europe’s most prestigious club competition, Paris Saint-Germain are on the verge of earning a ticket to the VELUX EHF FINAL4.

The 28:20 win in Zagreb on Saturday evening makes it very likely and even Noka Serdarusic admitted this after the game: “I can't see how Zagreb could stop us.”

Such a meteoric rise has not been without trouble though. Only last summer the Parisian club finally took various turns that shaped him into potential VELUX EHF Champions League winners. Let us discover which key changes took place.

The foundations were already there

Building a team takes time, everybody knows that. But building a team capable of winning the competition is an entirely different matter. When the Qatari owners took control of the club, back in 2012, everything had to be built.

A coaching staff, fan base and perhaps most importantly a team. Former Champions League winners such as national figure Luc Abalo and defensive monster Didier Dinart, were drafted. Mikkel Hansen, the Danish superstar, took his place on the boat too, even though, at the time, you could wonder what he was looking for here, in a club which was not even qualified to play in the VELUX EHF Champions League.

"The project appealed to me," he said back then, alongside the ability to play handball in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Year after year, the team was strengthened, adding experience with former Champions League winners Igor Vori and Daniel Narcisse in 2013 as well as future leaders such as William Accambray.

In the summer of 2014, Thierry Omeyer joined in, and you could feel back then that something special was on the way. The first two Champions League campaigns ended at the quarter-final stage, but both were very different, even though they ended in Veszprem.

In the first season they were hesitant, sometimes awkward, while in the second they looked more confident, although clashes between some players and Philippe Gardent, the coach at the time, sometimes made you wonder who the real boss was.

But, all in all, you could feel that almost all the ingredients were there, all you needed was a little bit of spice and a good cook.

Noka Serdarusic, the perfect cook

And the good cook arrived last summer. Zvonimir Sardarusic, nicknamed Noka, had been back in business since the early months of 2014 at Aix. His record makes him one of the most prestigious coaches in handball world.

In fifteen years on the THW Kiel bench, he caused a revolution in handball. To him, the aim is not to concede one goal less than your opponent, but to score one more. And if it means scoring 40 while the guys in front of you score 39, then so be it.

Noka was chosen by the PSG decision makers for many reasons. Firstly, he changed THW Kiel from a good team to one that reached the stars many times.

With Sardarusic behind the steering wheel, the Zebras won one Champions League trophy and reached the final twice, all of this done in style.

Steffan Lövgren, Staffan Olsson, Marcus Ahlm, Kim Andersson and Nikola Karabatic were players who would give their lives on the court, playing at 200mph, giving the impression that you were watching a bulldozer on a handball court.

As soon as you had the ball, the idea was to drive it to the opponents’ net the quickest way possible, but without madness and all players knew exactly what they had to do.

This is, more or less, the philosophy that Noka Serdarusic has brought to Paris since the summer. Where before players could be sometimes described as "sloppy", they are now roaring, running around in a ballet timed with perfection.

This looks very much like THW Kiel in the beginning of the 2000s, but, why should you fix something that is not broken?

And if you needed an indication showing how dedicated the players are to their new coach, here is a little story.

Serdarusic barely speaks French and all his instructions and timeouts are given in German. He usually asks Thierry Omeyer or Daniel Narcisse to translate his words, but some of the players have now started to take German lessons in order to understand his advice. Not too bad for commitment from players at a French club, right?

Nikola Karabatic, the perfect bandmaster

And in every note-perfect symphony, you need a bandmaster. If you have all the money you could want, of course you go for the best one you can find.

That is what PSG owners surely thought when they made Nikola Karabatic their target in the summer of 2014. The World Handball Player of the year in 2007 and 2014, three-time EHF Champions League winner with three different clubs, the French centre back was the obvious choice for the club so eager to enter the history books.

“Nikola is the best player in the world, and in our will to become one of the top clubs, it felt natural to ask him to join us,” said PSG general manager Jean-Claude Blanc last summer.

After spending two years in FC Barcelona, Karabatic said yes. Of course, building a new project in Paris appealed to him, but there was so much more to that.

Being coached by Serdarusic, a man he considers his mentor, was one massive motivation for the centre-back. They share a bond that was created long before they met in Kiel and that was only reinforced then. Even when the coach and the player were later separated by distance, they talked on the phone on a regular basis.

Could Nikola have come back to Paris were it not for Noka? Nobody knows for sure, but the fact that his little brother Luka was already on board only made his desire to come back even stronger. Handball-wise, the two have shared a lot together, from the Montpellier days to the exile in Aix, and Nikola made it clear that nothing could please him more than playing with Luka on a daily basis.

A whole new dimension for PSG

Karabatic has brought PSG into a whole new dimension. But not just the team, but the whole club as well. After all, he isn't one of the best players in the world for nothing.

On the court, one of the most important things he did is that relieve Mikkel Hansen of some responsibilities. Just think about last season, the game in Veszprem when the Dane scored 15 goals.

That was pretty impressive, but you couldn't find anyone by his side to help him sort the situation out. Now that Nikola is here, he is taking half the duties on his shoulder and Hansen is only more effective.

Just look at the numbers, Mikkel Hansen has already scored 116 times, thirteen more than last season, including four games in which he reached the 10-goal mark.

“It's easier to play with Nikola Karabatic. He understands the game better than anyone else, he's able to create so much difference for himself that he makes things easier for the players around,” explains the left back.

If not this year, then maybe the next

Last summer, you could be forgiven for thinking that there would be a clash of egos between the two stars.

However, nothing of the sort has been visible so far. Noka Serdarusic is used to coaching such star-studded teams with success and it seems that everybody is pulling in the same direction.

This was not made in heaven, believe me, and yet only nine months after Nikola and Noka joined forces, they are on the verge on doing something the club has strived to achieve in the last three years.

That does not mean that they will ultimately win the VELUX EHF Champions League, because this is something completely different altogether. But they will have succeeded where they had failed before.

If they don't end up on the top of Europe next month, surely they will at some point. After all, that is why superstars such as Uwe Gensheimer and Luka Stepancic are ready to join in next season.

Kevin Domas is a 29-year-old handball journalist who has been passionate about the sport from an early age. After playing and refereeing, he is now a journalist and media manager for the French handball website handnews.fr, among others.

Kevin has been a regular contributor to eurohandball.com for four years, a website that allows him to combine traditional journalism with a more modern approach using social networks and mobile journalism.


TEXT: Kevin Domas / cor
 
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