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30.08.2017, 17:40
SEHA league ready for further growth in new season
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FEATURE: The SEHA league returns for its seventh year with significant changes, aimed at paving the way for an even more successful future of the competition

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SEHA league ready for further growth in new season

The South East Handball Association has yet again managed to gather some of Europe’s biggest clubs under its roof.

When the SEHA league throws off for the start of its seventh season on Wednesday 30 August, no less than six VELUX EHF Champions League teams are part of the competition. No other league contains more Champions League clubs as Germany and France have three each.

Selected matches of the SEHA league 2017/18 will be streamed live on ehfTV, the official EHF video and streaming portal.

However, the SEHA league will be without its two-time champions Veszprém. Apart from Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro will also not be represented while Serbia has made a comeback with two teams.

The fiercely competitive nature of the competition will remain intact. Trophy defenders Vardar are leading the pack, alongside fellow Champions League outfits Zagreb, Meshkov Brest, Celje, Gorenje and Metalurg.

The favourites

Three-time champions Vardar start as the biggest favourites, returning with a marginally changed team and more confidence than ever after winning every imaginable accolade in 2016/17. They ended Veszprém’s SEHA reign after two consecutive titles for the Hungarian team, and then went all the way as they lifted the elusive trophy on their first VELUX EHF FINAL4 outing.

Meshkov Brest are expected to lead the chasing pack. Having made steady progress, consistently ranked among the top four teams over the course of five years, including two final appearances, the Belorussian team comes back with sound reinforcements and ambitions of winning their maiden title.

Meanwhile, 2013 champions Zagreb also cannot be overlooked in the favourites’ circle. This season the Croatian champions will nurture a young team on the strong shoulders of the experienced veterans.

The youthful Celje will look to further progress in the competition, having just narrowly missed out on a Final 4 berth in their maiden season last term. Tactician Branko Tamse is having a huge amount of raw young talent at his disposal, If used to their best, the Slovenian champions have the potential of being the surprise package.

Tatran Presov and Metalurg deserve at least an honourable mention although their chances of causing an upset are generally not considered very big. Whilst both teams have enough quality – with Tatran boasting experience and Metalurg young talent – they lack consistency and depth to be among the early favourites.

The stars

This year the SEGHA league will have to do without several stars. As much as the fans will miss the 2016/17 MVP and best scorer Blaz Janc (now Kielce), goalkeeper Ivan Stevanovic (Kaddetten) and the likes of Momir Ilic and his goal scoring prowess, their absence will be remedied by the sheer quality and talent of the participating teams.

In Ilic’s absence, Vardar’s prolific left back Vuko Borozan is sure to amass a huge following due to his killer instinct in front of the goal. The towering Montenegrin has made his name as one of most potent attacking threats and was one the key factors in Vardar’s dominance last term. Borozan is expected to lead the SEHA scoring charts in the upcoming season, and being 23 years old, his prime is yet to come.

The goals do not get created on their own. An obvious choice, but it is hard to overlook the masterful playmaker Luka Cindric. The crafty Croatian has enjoyed a dream season last term, sometimes singlehandedly conducting play against the Europe’s best. The 24-year-old enters the 2017/18 season with great expectation and an even greater responsibility. Apart from the title defence in both the VELUX EHF Champions League and the SEHA league, he has the ‘home’ EHF EURO 2018 coming up in Croatia.

With so many talented youngsters around, it is a rare feature for a field player to age like the vine. However, Rastko Stojkovic has been consistently doing so over the previous seasons. The 36-year-old has reached his peak past season, dominating the six-metre line, having scored 106 goals in the past regular season alone. His Meshkov Brest side will be having the highest ambitions, and the feisty Serbian will be integral part of their plans for the upcoming season.

Among the plethora of goalkeeping talent nurtured by SEHA teams, the evergreen Arpad Sterbik gets a nod, playing his farewell season with Vardar. Retiring at the end of 2017/18, the 38-year-old Sterbik has consistently been among Europe’s finest goalkeepers for the past two decades. His heroics in goal earned him the VELUX EHF FINAL4 MVP title, which, in his own words, is “the crown of his career.”

The transfers

The SEHA league saw some significant movement on the transfer market this summer.

Champions Vardar have replaced their star right back Daniel Dujshebaev (joined Kielce) with the Latvian giant Dainis Kistopans, joining from Meshkov Brest. Whilst not on par with Dujshebaev’s dynamic and offensive variety, Kristopans’ 2.15 metre frame makes the defence more solid. Alexander Dereven and Petar Angelov also left club.

Meanwhile, seasoned Russian right back Konstantin Igropulo will fill in Kristopans’ big shoes at Meshkov Brest. The team from Belarus have pulled a coup in acquiring left back Petar Djordjic from Flensburg, also adding line player Vid Poteko from Celje. The talismanic centre back Pavel Atman has left the club.

Zagreb have blended youth and experience, having brought Damir Bicanic back to the team alongside talented winger Josip Bozic Pavletic from NEXE, as well as one of Europe’s biggest goalkeeping prospects, Urh Kastelic from Celje. Igor Stevanovic, Luka Sebetic and Sandro Obranovic have left.

Celje have raided domestic rivals Gorenje, securing the signature of playmaker Luka Mitrovic. French line player Igor Anic also joined. Celje have pulled a coup and brought two big teenage prospects on loan from Kielce, Daniel Dushebaev and Branko Vujovic.

The improvements

The seventh season will bring big improvements to the competition itself. For the first time since its inaugural edition in 2011, the SEHA league will have a fixed playing time schedule with matches now being played round-by-round at 17:15 hrs, 19:00 hrs, 20:30 hrs and 20:45 hrs.

The change will open more marketing opportunities for the league and its participants, drawing more public and media attention to this ever-growing competition.

This will mean more visibility and opportunities to spark creative initiatives, such as SEHA TV Magazine, and the vastly successful hashtag #be8player, which have drawn thousands in reach last term, and are only expected to grow further.

SEHA’s extensive work on the field of digital media has not come unnoticed, either. The website is frequently updated with multimedia content, in addition to free live streams from all matches, as well as the Final 4 tournament available over the past several seasons.

To be on par with the best, the social media front is where the biggest improvement has been made. The aforementioned #be8player campaign amassed a huge following, and SEHA media crew now offer an in-depth social media coverage both on and off the court.

Meanwhile, the title sponsor, Russian energy giant Gazprom, has already extended its sponsorship until 2020, securing the longterm future of the competition.


TEXT: Nemanja Savic / ew
 
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