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27.08.2018, 09:00
Celje’s plan: produce talent and win
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown: RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO). Rising stars once again have the chance to shine for Slovenia’s top club, as they aim to reach the knock-out round.
 

Celje’s plan: produce talent and win

It is difficult to imagine a VELUX EHF Champions League season without RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko. The Slovenian side have been a regular fixture in the competition. But for four consecutive seasons, they have not reached their basic goal: the elimination matches.

The team often lacks experience in crucial moments, but never the fighting spirit. Celje won all the available domestic titles since Branko Tamse was appointed as head coach, and every year they fed bigger clubs with top players such as Miha Zarabec, Gasper Marguc, Blaz Blagotinsek, Blaz Janc and, the latest but not the least, Borut Mackovsek.

This season offers an opportunity for some new players to shine.

Three questions ahead of the new season:

- Can Celje reach the Last 16?

Every year, Celje prove they can surprise the big teams. But in 2017/18, the points against Kiel and Kielce were not enough. Three years in the row, the Slovenian champions just missed sixth place on the group phase table and, with five newcomers, the main European goal again looks tough to accomplish.

‟There are seven national champions out of eight teams in the group, and the eighth is Nantes, who were FINAL4 participants and finalists last season, so that tells all how strong this group is. The last two seasons we were only inches away and this year we will do all to be on the other side,” says team captain and one of the rare experienced players David Razgor.

One of the advantages compared to the past two seasons could be the fact that, alongside the Champions League, Celje will only compete in the domestic championship, leaving more time for the hard work developing youngsters.

“We want to stay dominant in national competitions where we will compete from the start. Other Slovenian clubs did not agree that Celje can play SEHA league in the first part of the season,” says Razgor. “In VELUX EHF Champions league the main objective is to get out of the group and play the Last 16 finals, where later anything can happen. With a young team and against the top teams we will face, it is not going to be easy.”

- How will the newcomers fit in?

Celje lost its most effective shooter Ziga Mlakar and defence pillar Borut Mackovsek. Setting up the defensive play seems more difficult. The attack will remain fast paced – maybe even faster, as Celje will have three options in the middle: Jaka Malus, Rok Ovnicek and rising star Domen Makuc.

Like Igor Anic, Drasko Nenadic (former Flensburg and BSV) found a new start in a club with even richer history and space to improve in the field. Slovenian international goalkeeper Klemen Ferlin will replace Urban Lesjak.

Now that the club is on solid financial ground the future seems brighter. Team manager Rok Plankelj offers fans a reason to be optimistic: “Every year we present new players that can play Champions League and doing that is our goal. But of course, we always try to do whatever is possible to win matches and to proceed to the next round. That is why we have some experienced players in our team that can help youngsters and can create a team that is capable of big things.

“Our Zlatorog hall is a fortress and we want to defend it bravely and create top handball events out of every match. For the fans, we are preparing some improvements, special offers with a focus on digital growth of our club. We expect to have a lot of fans again and will try to improve average of 4,000 fans per match.”

- What will opponents offer in group phase?

Celje may be one of the three teams in Group B that know the feeling of lifting the Champions League trophy, but they are not looking at finishing among the top spots on the table this season. PSG, Nantes, Flensburg and Szeged are the main contenders in Group B, while Celje’s path to the Last 16 runs through more compatible Skjern, Zagreb and Zaporozhye.

“I do not need to talk much about PSG,” Razgor says. “Szeged are Hungarian champions, have great players and numerous fans. Flensburg are German champions and we played them a lot. Zagreb is our Balkan ‘El classico’ rival where extra sport tensions are always present. Skjern and Zaporozhye are clubs we are not so familiar with. We will face Danes for the first time – they have beaten Veszprém last season and played the quarter-finals. Our club has already played against Ukrainians, but years ago, so this will be a completely new chapter. They have invested a lot recently and they have some very experienced players.”

Gathering as many points as possible in Zlatorog and maybe surprising other teams on their own courts is the right formula. Wins against Kielce and Kiel in the last seasons are the living proof of Celje’s potential when they are at its best.

Under the spotlight: Domen Makuc

Just turned 18, Domen Makuc is already making huge steps on the scene. He may not be a starting middle back, as Malus and newcomer Ovnicek are more experienced, but fans are eager to see the teenager on the court. Despite his age, he can already produce passes and goals like senior players, and command his older teammates.

Makuc also looks like he is really enjoying every minute on the court. The ability to play a serious game with a smile on the face is a virtue that is not seen often. With the Slovenia U20 national team, he was crowned European champion this summer.

Self-esteem  

There are no reasons for Celje to be afraid of anybody. The lack of pressure to achieve top results in most of the matches makes them stronger. They will be playing the role of favourites only in the domestic competitions, where winning another triple seems more or less a certainty. Some ‘stage fright’ may come around when facing more equal teams in the VELUX EHF Champions league.

What the numbers say

This season it is 15 years ago that Celje went all the way and lifted the trophy, as the first and so far only team from Slovenia. The then head coach of Celje, legendary Miro Požun, has passed away recently (obituary), but he will live on in the memories of many members of the Slovenian handball family.

Fun fact

There are two players who have already won the VELUX EHF Champions league in the team. Igor Anic (31 years old), the oldest in the team, celebrated with THW Kiel, and newcomer Drasko Nenadic (28) lifted the trophy with Flensburg. Only one other Celje player knows how it feels to play in the Last 16: captain David Razgor.

RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO)

Qualification for the VELUX EHF Champions League 2018/19 season: Slovenian champions

Newcomers: Klemen Ferlin (Gorenje Velenje), Rok Ovnicek (Gorenje Velenje), Drasko Nenadic (Bjerringbro-Silkeborg), Kristian Horzen (Trimo Trebnje), Josip Sarac (Izvidac Osiguranje)

Left the club: Borut Mackovsek (Veszprém), Urban Lesjak (Hannover), Ziga Mlakar (Orlen Wisla Plock), Matic Suholeznik (Dunkerque), Luka Mitrovic (Cesson Rennes)

Coach: Branko Tamse (since 2013)

Team captain: David Razgor

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2018/19 season): 24
Winners (1): 2003/04
Semi-final (6): 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 1999/00, 2000/01, 2004/05
Quarter-final (2): 2001/02, 2005/06
Last 16 (4): 1995/96, 2006/07, 2012/13, 2013/14
Main Round (2): 2007/08, 2008/09
Group Phase (6): 1993/94, 1994/95, 2010/11, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17
Qualification (1): 2009/10

Other EC records:

Cup Winners’ Cup:
Semi-finals (2): 2002/03, 2011/12

Slovenian league: 22 titles (1992-2001, 2003-2008, 2010, 2014-2018)

Slovenian Cup: 21 titles (1992-2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012-2018)

Slovenian Super Cup: six titles (2007, 2010, 2014-2017)


TEXT: Uros Volk / cg
 
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