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28.08.2017, 12:00
Leon: Proud to be back on the big stage
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown: Spanish club Abanca Ademar Leon are determined to prove they deserve their VELUX EHF Champions League place.
 

Leon: Proud to be back on the big stage

After a four-year absence, Abanca Ademar Leon are back on the VELUX EHF Champions League stage. The team, coached by five-times Champions League winner Rafael Guijosa, were runners-up in the Spanish Asobal league season 2016/17. Now, Leon want to break the Spanish play-off curse to make it to the Last 16.

Three questions before the new season:

Can Leon return to the good old days?

Adamar Leon made their name on the European handball stage in the 1990s and 2000s when they reached the EHF Champions League quarter-finals four times, were four-time finalists in the EHF Cup Winners’ Cup and two-times Cup Winners’ Cup champion. But with the financial crisis in Spain, all clubs except Barcelona had to reduce their budgets radically. Top international stars left – but young Spanish players got the chance to improve. This remains the way Leon works, but it will be hard to return to their previous levels of success with their current mixture of Spaniards and Argentines.

Will Leon end the Spanish play-off curse?

The Group C/D play-offs to determine the Last 16 participants have happened twice. Both times featured Spanish club La Rioja and both times the team failed to progress. It is Leon’s hope to end this curse and to proceed to the Last 16.

“It is one of our major goals top qualify for this round,” says coach Guijosa. Together with the bolstered squads of Schaffhausen and Skjern, Leon are expecting to fight for one of the two top spots in their group. But their potential play-off opponents such as Montpellier or Zaporozhye will not make the challenge easier.

Will it be too tough for Leon to stand the heat in Asobal and Champions League?

There is always a huge fight below Barcelona to finish for the second spot in the Asobal - which in the 2018/19 season will guarantee another Champions League spot. Teams with the larger squad have an advantage. For Guijosa, the participation in the Champions League is an additional boost for domestic competitions.

“We want to adapt our Champions League performance for the Asobal,” he says. “Playing this competition hopefully helps us to develop this team step by step.”

Under the spotlight: three U21 World Champions

Goalkeeper Javier Gonzalez, right back David Alonso and left wing Jaime Fernandez were part of the Spanish team that became U21 World Champions in Algeria in August. They are the high hopes for the club, which is famous for polishing diamonds - as previously proved by coaches like Jordi Ribera or Manuel Cadenas. The danger for the club is the same every year: presenting the young players on the big Champions League stage will cause international interest and maybe transfers.

Self-esteem

Leon are out to firm up their second position in Spanish club handball, make it to some domestic cup finals - and hope to face some Group A/B teams in the Last16.

“In our group, we face five rivals with different styles and great players, which makes it harder to reach our goal,” says Guijosa. “For our club it is a pride to return to the best handball competition in the world which will help us to continue to grow as a club and team, both sporting and socially.”

Team captain Diego Piñeiro Martín adds: “We want to enjoy the best handball competition in the world and get as far as possible.”

Fun fact

Beside Kielce’s Talant Dujshebaev, Leon’s coach Rafael Guijosa is the only former IHF World Handball Player of the Year (1999) to coach a current Champions League squad. In addition, Guijosa won the Champions League five times with the golden generation of FC Barcelona. He was named best left wing in All Star Teams three times. Guijosa has been coaching Leon since 2015 after a spell with the Iranian national team.

What the numbers say

Leon made - from their perspective unhappy - history in the 2011/12 season. They were halfway through the gate to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne after their first quarter-final leg but finally failed. Leon won their home encounter against Füchse Berlin 34:23, but lost the re-match 18:29 to miss the pinnacle event on aggregate goals. An 11-goal lead in a men's EHF Champions League quarter-final has never before or after not been enough to take a team through to the semi-final.

Abanca Ademar Leon (ESP)

Qualification for the 2017/18 VELUX EHF Champions League season: runners-up in Spain

Newcomers: Zivan Pesic (RK Vojvodina), Predrag Vejin (Metalurg Skopje)

Left the club: Javier García López (BM San Jose Obrero Lanzarote), Ignacio Huerta Pire (BM Base Oviedo), Leonardo Sampaio Santos

Coach: Rafel Guijosa Castillo (since 2015)

Team captain: Diego Piñeiro Martín

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2017/18 season): 12

Quarter-finals (4): 1997/98, 1999/00, 2001/02, 2011/12

Last 16 (4): 2003/04, 2005/06, 2009/10, 2012/13

Main Round (2): 2007/08, 2008/09

Qualification (1): 2010/11

Other EC records:

EHF Cup:

Quarter-finals 2010/11

Group phase 2013/14

Cup Winners Cup:

Winner 1998/99, 2004/05

Finalist 2000/01, 2006/07

Spanish champion: 2001

Spanish Cup winner: 1999, 2009 (Asobal cup), 2002 (King’s Cup)


TEXT: Björn Pazen / jh
 
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