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31.05.2017, 09:40
Quick-fire round: Who will leave Cologne as champions?
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PASS THE BALL: Five EHF journalists shed their light on this weekend's big question: Which team will lift the trophy at the VELUX EHF FINAL4?
 

Quick-fire round: Who will leave Cologne as champions?

The countdown is running: Just three days until the annual highlight in Europe’s club handball starts in Cologne on Saturday.

Four teams at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 are aiming to succeed Kielce as title holders of the Champions League. Veszprém takes on Paris and Vardar plays Barcelona for a place in Sunday’s final.

So who is the favourite? Five EHF journalists share their opinion, starting with Germany’s Björn Pazen. He passes the ball on to Bence Mártha, he passes on to Kevin Domas, to Nemanja Savic, and finally to Peter Bruun.

Björn Pazen, Germany:

There is a long tradition in handball: All predictions by Björn Pazen are always wrong. I expected two German teams to be on court in Cologne - and by favouring Flensburg for the quarter-final I lost many of my Macedonian friends.

So now the time has come to pay back to Vardar. After their impressive wins against Flensburg and in the SEHA final against Veszprém, they have the chance to go all the way in Cologne. If - and this is a very huge if - they manage to cope with all surrounding side events of the VELUX EHF FINAL4.

Flensburg were the only debutants to make it straight onto the podium. Kielce failed twice before raising the trophy, Veszprém three times now, and even the star-studded PSG gang had too many distractions at their debut in 2016. So if Vardar remain focussed, they can win the trophy.

But in general, Barcelona ad PSG are supposed to clash in the final. And then PSG are supposed to take revenge for the spectacular elimination of their football team against Barca. So I go for a trophy for PSG.

But never forget the first sentence of this statement, Vardar…

Bence Mártha, Hungary:

BenceMartha_150FINAL4 experience can't be bought. If there is one thing history has taught us, it is that newcomers need time to adjust to everything the biggest handball tournament represents. The venue, the media attention, the expectations and the competition format: You can only get familiar with it by being there. (Yes, I know, Hamburg and Flensburg won it at the first take but German teams are no newcomers in this respect.)

Therefore I don't believe Vardar could go all the way, while PSG is not my choice either. They have a very strong squad but Noka Serdarusic relies too heavily on his starters, which resulted in his second line struggling for playing time and seeming out of shape a little. The notorious Veszprém defence can upset the French outfit's superstars, yet the ageing Hungarian squad does not seem to be fit enough to play – and win – two high-tempo games in two days.

This means my money is on Barca. Nevertheless, one thing remains for sure: It is almost impossible to pick a winner as no one knows what the decisive factors will be.

Kevin Domas, France:

But Paris have been building things up for quite some time now. Their players are hungry as hell, and all the French national players want to finally put a French team on the top of the world. Nikola Karabatic and Thierry Omeyer  signed in the capital so they could end their career knowing they helped Paris won the Champions League.

There are symbols in there, and not light ones. For them, winning the Champions League with Kiel was a sports achievement, while lifting the trophy with PSG would be a matter of national pride, too.

And Veszprém don't seem ready to stop them on their way to the top. The Hungarian side must be full of bad memories after the last two finals. And, mentally, having lost against Paris twice this season can't be an advantage.

The only real question is the level Vardar Skopje are going to display. For sure, Barcelona look like favourites, but the Macedonian team have got individual experience, and it's no surprise they reached Cologne the year Arpad Sterbik was at his best and Ivan Cupic joined the team. They've had the time to rest and to prepare, and while some specialists predicted them to stumble against Flensburg, they rose like phoenixes. And with the outsider reputation going on, they might just be the surprise this weekend.

Nemanja Savic, Serbia:

There is one common denominator for all teams at the FINAL4 this year – hunger.

Barcelona and PSG both finished last season empty-handed, and are now are hotly tipped to meet in the final. And while the incredibly consistent Barcelona (with only two defeats throughout the season) pray to the gods of good karma, PSG will pray to their own god: Nikola Karabatic.

Noka Serdarusic has yet to find a way for Hansen and Karabatic to effectively coexist on the same court, and while this issue did not hamper their Cologne berth, it most certainly will hurt their chances at the FINAL4.

However, I see nobody wanting it more than Veszprém, especially after last year. But all the wishful thinking aside, Vesprém’s edge this season is not as sharp as it was in the previous years. Lack of success at the SEHA league was somewhat remedied by the domestic trophy defence, but the level of individual performances across their entire team was not overly consistent.

The reason is simple: Veszprém lack tactical variety. Despite their cohesive bunch, Xavi Sabate has so far failed to produce a plan that excludes Ilic and Nagy. The two stars were the best scorers for Veszprém in each of their six VELUX EHF FINAL4 matches. But, if we add this to the pair’s defensive contribution, playing time and advancing years, you get the picture of how a plan B can be the difference between success and failure.

There are several reasons this FINAL4 will be different to all the previous ones. One of them - I was finally right about all four of my predictions.

Vardar are finally there, and as much as I think this may not be their year to win it, I truly believe they can be the surprise package. They will be confident, playing without pressure, willing to prove they are worthy of being among the best, and Raul Gonzalez is tactically a notch above his compatriots. Furthermore, I give you several extra reasons: Very appealing roster, determination and run (see what I did there?)

Peter Bruun, Denmark:

PeterBruun_150I expect we´ll get the ‘dream final’ between PSG and Barcelona.

Yes, Vardar did win their group, but their group was in my opinion considerably weaker than Group A. And yes, Vardar did eliminate Flensburg clearly in the quarter-finals, but that was a Flensburg team far from their best level.

I agree that Vardar may be able to play without pressure, but I simply do not see the Macedonian debutants being able to do the job against Barca, who will be hungry after missing the FINAL4 last year.

Veszprém will be hungry too, but they will also be under mental influence by their several failed attempts – losing that nine-goal lead in the final against Kielce last year in particular. Furthermore, Veszprém have simply not shown me anything yet that can make me believe they can overcome PSG – as I assume, Serdarusic is not going to bench Mikkel Hansen for almost the entire second half again.

The final is considerably harder to predict. As a Dane, I would really like Jesper Nöddesbo to say goodbye to Barcelona with the title, but in fact, I expect two other Danes, Mikkel Hansen and Henrik Møllgaard, to have better a better chance to be triumphant.

Paris has a narrow edge over Barcelona the way I see it.


TEXT: Björn Pazen, Bence Mártha, Kevin Domas, Nemanja Savic, Peter Bruun / ew
 
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