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29.08.2017, 12:00
Unleashed lions want to run further
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown: Rhein-Neckar Löwen have been eliminated in the Last 16 for the past three years, but the Bundesliga champions know they can go further.
 

Unleashed lions want to run further

Six years have gone since Rhein-Neckar Löwen's last (and only) participation in the VELUX EHF FINAL4. After winning the Bundesliga trophy twice in a row and after three early Last 16 eliminations on international turf, Nikolaj Jacobsen's team will have another chance to progress. This season, their “old lions cage” of Hares in St. Leon Rot will be their second-choice venue besides SAP Arena.

Three questions before the new season

How will Löwen cope with the loss of Kim Ekdahl du Rietz?

It was a major surprise when 27-year-old Swede Kim Ekdahl du Rietz announced the end of his handball career. In the last season, the left back was a core figure in Löwen's defence of the German Bundesliga title. He has now moved back to Sweden to start some new projects far away from handball.

Newly-recruited left back, the Serbian Momir Rnic, will have large boots to fill, but in general, Löwen are used to situations like this. Two years ago, Niklas Landin left for Kiel and in 2016 Uwe Gensheimer said goodbye, joining PSG. In both cases, Löwen went on to become German champions.

Will the focus be on German competitions or on the VELUX EHF Champions League?

In the previous two seasons, Löwen surprised fans, experts and opponents in some Champions League matches, resting their top stars in the group phase. Coach Nikolaj Jacobsen believes that all competitions are treated equally and that with a squad like Löwen have you cannot put the pedal to the metal in all matches. But with manager Jennifer Kettemann announcing that one major goal of the Lions is to go at least one step further - to the quarter-finals - it could mean a bigger focus on the Champions League this year.

Wiil the coach's balancing act work?

For the first time, Nikolaj Jacobsen will have a full season with the double function of coaching Löwen and the Danish men’s national team, including the EHF EURO 2018 in Croatia. This will take a lot of time and effort for the Dane, but all at Löwen are confident that the balancing act will be a plus for both sides. In 2019, Jacobsen will end his mission at Löwen to take over the Danish side on a full base. Löwen are used to this situation: Gudmundur Gudmundsson previously coached both the club and the Danish team.

Under the spotlight: Jerry Tollbring

The 21-year-old Swedish left wing has already proved his significance for Löwen in their first official match, the German Super Cup against cup winners THW Kiel. He secured the penalty shoot-out for his side by netting in with the final buzzer and then scoring from the line later on to win the trophy. In combination with experienced Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson, the former Kristianstad player will form a top-class duo on the left wing.

“Despite his age, Jerry is already as cold as ice,” Jacobsen praises his new arrival, who netted in more than 70 times in the previous Champions League season.

Self-esteem

Facing record winners FC Barcelona Lassa and defending champions Vardar mean the highest hurdles for Löwen in the group phase.

“This is a demanding group with two of the best European teams,” says manager Kettemann.

Team captain Andy Schmid adds: “Every handball player dreams of competing in the Champions League and of those matches. Barcelona and Skopje have the advantage that they have a lower burden in their domestic competitions, thus they are the favourites to top the group.”

Fun fact

Rhein-Neckar Löwen are the only Bundesliga club in Germany and the only club in the VELUX EHF Champions League to be managed by a woman. Jennifer Kettemann joined Löwen in spring 2016, just before the club won their first German league title, responsible for sponsorship, finances and business matters. Before, she was in a managing position at global software company SAP, one of the main sponsors of Rhein-Neckar Löwen. The 35-year-old has never played handball.

What the numbers say

Three times in a row, Löwen were eliminated in the Last 16, first by Szeged, then by Zagreb and finally in 2016/17 by Kiel. In the last two years Löwen won the away leg first but failed to consolidate the home advantage on the return leg. In 2013/14 in the quarter-final against Barcelona they took a 38:31 advantage to Spain, but lost 24:31 and were eliminated by away goals.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)

Qualification for the 2017/18 VELUX EHF Champions League season: German champions

Newcomers: Kristian Bliznac (Elverum Handball), Bogdan Radivojevic (SG Flensburg/Handewitt), Jerry Tollbring (IFK Kristianstad), Momir Rnic (MT Melsungen)

Left the club: Marius Steinhauser (SG Flensburg/Handewitt), Dejan Manaskov (Telekom Veszprem), Kim Ekdahl du Rietz (end of career), Michel Abt (coach second team)

Coach: Nikolaj Jacobsen (since July 2014)

Team captain: Andy Schmid

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2017/18 season): 9

Semi-Final (2): 2008/09, 2010/11 (FINAL4)

Quarter-final (2): 2009/10, 2013/14

Last 16 (2): 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17

Qualification (1): 2011/12

Other EC records:

Cup Winners’ Cup: Finalist 2007/08

EHF Cup:

Winner 2012/13

Semi-finalist 2011/12

Quarter-finalist 2006/07

German league: 2 titles (2016, 2017)

German Cup winner: - (finalist 2006, 2007, 2010)


TEXT: Björn Pazen / jh
 
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