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23.05.2018, 10:00
VELUX EHF FINAL4 teams under the microscope
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FEATURE: The season's highlight in Cologne is approaching fast and for the first time three clubs from the same country, alongside title holders Vardar, will battle it out for the most coveted trophy in European club handball
 

VELUX EHF FINAL4 teams under the microscope

The countdown is running. There are just a few days left until the VELUX EHF FINAL4 2018 throws off in Cologne so let’s take a closer look at the four participants.

In Saturday’s semi-finals, HBC Nantes take on Paris Saint-Germain Handball at 15:15 hrs (live on ehfTV.com) before HC Vardar play Montpellier HB at 18:00 hrs (live on ehfTV.com) for a place in Sunday’s final.

What are the assets of the each of the four teams? What makes each of them vulnerable? And what sets them apart from the rest?

Here is our analysis of the four clubs that dream to lift the trophy in LANXESS arena on Sunday night.

HBC Nantes

Strength: The luck of the first-timer

First-time participants tend to get lucky in LANXESS arena. And speaking of debutants, HBC Nantes are up there with the very luckiest. In only their second Champions League season, they have made it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4. Meeting newbies Skjern instead of experienced Veszprém in the quarter-final was a slice of good fortune. Actually, since the beginning of the European season, Nantes have had their fair share of luck. They won’t mind keeping that up for a few more days.

Weakness: Overconfidence

For sure, being lucky and playing great help you gain confidence, but you have to be careful about finding the right balance between trust and caution. And some times this season, Nantes were on the ropes. Remember the games against Zagreb, for instance. They are still a very young team with a big appetite but not much experience yet. And when you go up so quickly and fly so close to the sun, you might want to be careful not to burn your wings.

X-factor: Olivier Nyokas

The left back has come around again just at the right time in the season. After suffering a knee injury in the fall, the unpredictable player returned for the second leg of the quarter-finals. Three goals in 15 minutes and Olivier Nyokas was truly back again. With him, Nantes are a completely different team, adding variety and speed to their game. Watch out, ‘Top 5 Goals’ lovers, he is back!

Paris Saint-Germain Handball

Strength: Experience

Take Paris’ roster and you will hardly find any players who have not been to Cologne before. And, as the mantra says, ‘experience can win games.’ Paris have learned from last season’s mistakes and have been showing very early on that they were on a mission this season. Two failures in a row are enough. Third in 2016, second in 2017, there are not many choices left for 2018. They know their opponents and there will not be many surprises on the court. Yes, experience can be decisive.

Weakness: Possible fatigue

Coach Noka Serdarusic likes to stick to his key players - but maybe he is overdoing it. Some players don’t seem to get enough rest. Look at the right-back position, where Nédim Rémili barely ever sits on the bench. Or Luka Karabatic, who has been seriously injured twice but still plays 60 minutes whenever he comes back. With two high-profile games in two days in Cologne, it is urgent to avoid fatigue and open up the bench a little bit more than usual.

X-factor: Rodrigo Corrales

The Spanish goalkeeper is having the time of his handball life this season. Second major competition with Spain and he grabs gold at the EHF EURO 2018. First season in Paris and he gets to the VELUX EHF FINAL4. He may have taken his time to settle in his new environment, but Corrales has proved since January that he is one of the world’s top class goalkeepers. Paris’ almost untainted record in 2018 owes him a lot. Goalkeepers are a key to success in LANXESS arena. With Corrales and Omeyer, Paris probably have got the most effective pair.

Montpellier HB

Strength: No fear for anything

Kielce, Barcelona, Flensburg: three recent Champions League winners, and also three of the latest victims of Montpellier’s stunning run in Europe this season. They might have all bets against them but they don’t care and will go for it anyway. In Cologne, they will gladly endorse the ‘underdogs’ tag so they can surprise everybody once more. The roster might lack international stars, but their collective strength could lead them to the trophy.

Weakness: Diverted focus

Montpellier are learning how to chase several trophies at the same time. While in the running for the Champions League title, they stumbled in the semi-finals of the French cup competition and have been giving ground to rivals PSG in the French league - though Montpellier are still in the lead. Montpellier must stick to their one-game-at-a-time approach. Otherwise disappointments seem to be just around the corner.

X-factor: Jonas Truchanovicius

The first Lithuanian player to reach the VELUX EHF FINAL4 is the best surprise of the season in Montpellier. Two years ago, only coach Patrice Canayer saw something in this tall guy. But at only 24, Truchanovicius has spread his wings and started to fly - high. Eight goals against Barcelona, six and seven against Flensburg: the bigger the occasion, the better he plays. Expect some crushing performances in Cologne, then.

HC Vardar

Strength: Will for fitting farewell

This Vardar team arrive in Cologne with nothing to lose. They won the competition last season, lifting the trophy again would be a bonus. Similar to Vardar’s women’s team in Budapest two weeks ago, they will give 100 percent as this is the final journey in a Vardar jersey for a lot of the players and their coach. Don’t underestimate the will of Luka Cindric, Ilija Abutovic, Joan Canellas or Arpad Sterbik to end their Macedonian era on a high.

Weakness: The right-back position

Last season, Vardar were a complete squad with danger coming from everywhere. This season, that has not been the case anymore. With Alex Dujshebaev gone to Kielce, the right-back position appears to be a problem. Jorge Maqueda is not yet as consistent every game as he would like, while Dainis Kristopans might struggle against Montpellier’s short players in the semi-final. A tactical mastermind like Patrice Canayer will have noticed the opportunity.

The X-factor: The Macedonian fans

Last year, on their first visit to LANXESS arena, the Vardar fans were on fire. This year, with Veszprém’s trumpets not there, they will be able to unleash their full noise power that usually turns the Skopje arena into a fortress. With three French clubs facing them, Vardar will need to be united with their fans to make their way to the trophy again.


TEXT: Kevin Domas / ew
 
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