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01.11.2016, 07:07
20 teams aim for EHF EURO 2018
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GROUP 1-4 PREVIEW: EHF EURO 2018 Qualification begins with a big day of action as 20 squads take to the court on Wednesday
 

20 teams aim for EHF EURO 2018

For some the road to the Men’s EHF EURO 2018 began as early as October 2014 in the first qualification phase, but for most the first challenge on the way to the final tournament in Croatia begins this week.

The opening matches of Qualification Phase 2 will take place on Wednesday and Thursday, with 10 games to be played across Europe on Wednesday.

The EHF live ticker is available at ticker.ehf.eu.

GROUP 1
Hungary vs Latvia, Wednesday 2 November, 18:00 local time

Both Hungary and Latvia enter the EHF EURO 2018 Qualification with a point to prove. Hungary have endured a disappointing few years as they missed qualification for the Men’s World Championship 2015, then ranked 12th at the EHF EURO 2016 in Poland.

The EHF EURO 2016 result was not only below what Hungary hoped for, but also meant they lost any chance to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games. But following a successful qualification for the World Championship 2017, things are looking up.

Playing in Group 1 alongside Rio 2016 gold medallists Denmark, the Netherlands and Latvia, Hungary are in a strong position to claim one of the top two places on the table and with it a spot at the final tournament in Croatia – though they must begin their campaign without star right back and captain Laszlo Nagy.

Latvia have a more difficult road to the EHF EURO 2018 ahead – the chance that they can defeat the current Denmark squad is slim, and the team will therefore be hoping to record wins against Hungary and the Netherlands to secure a place at what would be their first ever European championship.

GROUP 2
Belarus vs Romania, Wednesday 2 November, 19:00 local time

Romania have been on the road to the EHF EURO 2018 for longer than most of the other national teams contesting this qualification Phase, as they started on their path to Croatia in Phase 1 played at the end of 2014.

There they topped Group 3, defeating Italy and Kosovo, before beating Israel in a two-leg play-off series. Now Romania have the chance to qualify for their first EHF EURO in more than 10 years, as they last made it to the final tournament in 1996, when they ranked ninth.

Though Romania are now led by FC Barcelona Lassa coach Xavi Pascual, they will face a tough challenge in Belarus, who pulled off some impressive wins at the EHF EURO 2016 to make their way to the main round.

Even with key left back Siarhei Rutenka far below optimum performance level due to an injury, the team performed well enough to finish 10th.

One of the stand-out elements of Belarus’ EHF EURO 2016 campaign was the number of young players that showed promise, with 20-year-old left back Uladzislau Kulesh and 22-year-old goalkeeper Viachaslau Saldatsenka already proving key to the squad.

GROUP 3
Austria vs Finland, Wednesday 2 November, 20:25 local time

Finland made it to Qualification Phase 2 via the two-leg play-off series in April 2016. Finland secured their place in this stage by defeating Luxembourg, and hope to claim a ticket to their debut EHF EURO from Group 3.

Considering their group opponents include EHF EURO 2016 silver medallists Spain, Austria, who made it to the Last 16 at the World Championship 2015, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, they will have to produce their very best.

“My aim is that we get more points than during last winter's World Championship qualifiers (they finished last in Group 2 with two points),” head coach Kaj Kekki said in an interview with the Finnish Federation website, before reiterating that for Finland the qualification is focused more on the long-term development of their players.  

“Players will now display their talents and hopefully this will open the door for more people to play overseas in heavy-duty series and to train professionally. For the players and the national team this is a very important thing with regard to development.”

Austria have the edge coming into the first match of the qualification, and look to be in with a good chance of ranking as one of the two top teams in the group.

GROUP 3
Spain vs Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wednesday 2 November, 20:30 local time

2013 world champions and EHF EURO 2016 silver medallists Spain begin their EHF EURO 2018 campaign after a difficult year.

Though they ranked second at the EHF EURO in Poland in January, the team were disappointed with their performance in the final, when Germany controlled the match from start to finish.  

Following the EHF EURO, Spain narrowly missed a place at the 2016 Olympic Games based on goal difference of just one, which put them behind Slovenia and Sweden at the end of the round-robin format qualification tournament.

Spain will not take any chances as they begin their quest for a place in Croatia, and with Jordi Ribera recently named as the head coach after several years successfully developing Brazil’s men’s side they are in an excellent position to start strong.

Bosnia-Herzegovina are a less established team than the hosts of Wednesday’s game, but should be able to challenge Spain with talented players like left back Mirsad Terzic and centre back Ivan Karacic.

“The Spaniards are the favourites but maybe we can surprise them. They have changed coach and have changes in their composition,” centre back Marko Tarabochia told the official website of the Handball Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

GROUP 4
FYR Macedonia vs Ukraine, Wednesday 2 November, 18:30 local time

FYR Macedonia are the strong favourites to record a win in this opening EHF EURO 2018 Qualification encounter. The team ranked 11th at the EHF EURO 2016 and ninth at the World Championship 2015, which was enough to secure them a place in the Olympic Qualification Tournaments on the road to Rio 2016.

FYR Macedonia finished third behind Poland and Tunisia at the tournament in Gdansk after losing to both sides and recording one win against Chile. Though they lost the chance for their first Olympic berth, there was some silver lining as Kiril Lazarov scored eight goals in each of their defeats.

The FC Barcelona Lassa right back – who was named in the All-star team for his position at the end of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2015/16 season and ranked as the third top goal scorer with a tally of 94 – is the key for FYR Macedonia.

Ukraine will find a face a significant challenge against the team led by Lazarov as they aim to secure their first EHF EURO qualification since 2010, when they finished 16th in the tournament played in Austria.

GROUP 4
Iceland vs Czech Republic, Wednesday 2 November, 19:30 local time

Czech Republic begin their EHF EURO 2018 campaign with a goal to make up for missing the 2016 edition of the championship, when they failed to qualify for the first time since 2006. But they will need to be on their game to beat an Iceland side with the likes of Telekom Veszprém’s Aron Palmarsson and Rhein Neckar-Löwen’s Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson.

Iceland have not missed an EHF EURO for 18 years, and have one medal to their name won at the championship – a bronze in 2010. At the EURO in Poland in 2016 they were disappointed to suffer two losses and manage only one win in the preliminary round, which meant they missed the main round and finished with a final ranking of 13th.

Czech Republic rely heavily on star left back Filip Jicha, though he has spent much of the club season with Barcelona playing as a defensive specialist and therefore may be a little below his best – which earned him the 2010 World Handball Player of the Year title after his MVP performance at the EHF EURO that same year – in attack.

“Time is short, but we will try to revive what has worked, to incorporate into that players who were absent. There are also changes the rules – some elements, such as a game without a goalie, we previously did not use too much,” Czech Republic head coach Daniel Kubes told the Federation website. “Harmonising all aspects of the game in the few training sessions will not be easy, but we have to deal with it.”


TEXT: Courtney Gahan / ts
 
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