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30.08.2018, 09:00
Löwen aim to end Last 16 curse
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown: Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER). In the last year with coach Jacobsen at the helm, the 2018 German Cup winners hope to make it one step further than the previous four seasons
 

Löwen aim to end Last 16 curse

The previous national and international season was like a roller coaster ride for Rhein-Neckar Löwen: First, they were eliminated in the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 for the fourth time in a row, then took the German Cup for the first time ever and finally let the Bundesliga trophy slip from their hands in the last four rounds of competition. In the new season – the last with Dane Nikolaj Jacobsen as coach – Löwen want more stability and hope to “survive” at least one more stage of the Champions League.

Three questions before the new season:

- Can Löwen end their Last 16 curse?

In the previous four seasons, Rhein-Neckar Löwen always failed in the Last 16 – against Szeged, Zagreb, Kiel and, in the last season, Kielce. “We definitely want to go further this time. The quarter-finals are our major international goal,” says manager Jennifer Kettermann.

However, this season, it is even harder to make it to the Last 16, as Löwen will face the Champions League winners from 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, as well as three-time finalists Veszprém in the group phase. The squad seems to be strong enough to take on these opponents, but you never know the injury situation and the burden from the Bundesliga.

“We are definitely not the favourites in our group, as teams such as Veszprém and Barcelona do not play in such strong domestic competitions – they are supposed to have more power when it counts,” says team captain Andy Schmid.

- What is the situation with Löwen’s arena?

As all German teams’ home matches in the VELUX EHF Champions League 2018/19 season will be played on Wednesday nights, and Wednesday is not a playing day for the German hockey league team Mannheim Adler, Rhein-Neckar Löwen have an international premiere. All Champions League matches will be played in their ‘regular home’, the SAP Arena, so the team do not have to travel to Frankfurt or St. Leon-Rot.

“Fans know the dates and the place, which makes it easier for them to plan,” says Kettemann. Immediately after the draw event, Löwen started a group phase ticket campaign, and hope for high attendance right from the start, when they face Barcelona in Mannheim.

- How will the newly composed middle block work?

As Hendrik Pekeler left for Kiel, Kristian Bliznac ended his career and Kim Ekdahl du Rietz joined Paris, Löwen’s Spanish defence boss Gedeon Guardiola will have some new neighbours in the middle block. Physically, Serbian Ilija Abutovic (Champions League winner with Vardar in 2017) is the new Pekeler, but new Swede Jesper Nielsen is also expected to play a core role in defence. Both new arrivals are experienced enough to understand Löwen’s defensive system quickly. Therefore, the middle block might even be stronger than last season.

Under the spotlight: Steffen Fäth

Welcome back to where it all started – this is the situation for Steffen Fäth. The EHF EURO 2016 champion and Olympic bronze medallist’s first professional contract was with Rhein-Neckar Löwen at the age of 18. After only one year, he left for Gummersbach, then played for Wetzlar and Berlin, and now arrives in Mannheim as EHF Cup winner to play the first Champions League season in his career.

Fäth has developed since he left Löwen, becoming a national team player and one of Germany’s best distance shooters and playmakers. The expectations are high, but Fäth is physically and mentally strong enough to stand this pressure.
 
Self-esteem

“We only face top sides this season. It is the hardest Champions league group phase ever,” says manager Kettemann, who received her European Handball Manager certificate in June in Cologne. “But we have the ambition to play a good role in this group and we are looking forward to playing those top duels.”

Team captain Andy Schmid, who was awarded best Bundesliga player of the season for the fifth straight time in 2017/18, shares this opinion: “Every handball player dreams of playing the Champions League and facing the clubs that we duel now. Our biggest hope is to make it to Cologne again.” Löwen made their so far one and only appearance at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in 2011.

Fun fact

Since July 2009, all Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s head coaches have been Scandinavian born. It all started with Swede Ola Lindgren (2009/10), who preceded Icelandic Gudmundur Gudmundsson (2010-2014) and current coach Dane Nikolaj Jacobsen. Jacobsen has coached the Denmark national team in parallel with Löwen since 2016.

After this season, Jacobsen will focus fully on Denmark, but his successor is already confirmed – and of course the Scandinavian trend continues: Icelandic born Kristjan Andresson, who currently coaches the Sweden national team and steered them to the silver medal at EHF EURO 2018, will be next in the role.
 
What the numbers say

Four players in Löwen’s squad have already won the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne – with four different clubs: Andreas Palicka (Kiel 2010, 2012), Bogdan Radivojevic (Flensburg 2014), Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson (Barcelona 2015) and Ilija Abutovic (Vardar 2017).

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)

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

Newcomers: Jannik Kohlbacher (HSG Wetzlar), Steffen Fäth (Füchse Berlin), Ilija Abutovic (HC Vardar), Vladan Lipovina (TV Hüttenberg), Jesper Nielsen (Paris Saint-Germain)

Left the club: Kristian Bliznac (end of career), Momir Rnic (destination unknown), Harald Reinkind (THW Kiel), Hendrik Pekeler (THW Kiel), Kim Ekdahl Du Rietz (Paris Saint-Germain), Rafael Baena (Bergischer HC), Klaus Gärtner (coach Alpla Hard)

Coach: Nikolaj Jacobsen (since July 2014)

Team captain: Andy Schmid

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2018/19 season): 10
Semi-final (2): 2008/09, 2010/11
Quarter-final (2): 2009/10, 2013/14
Last 16 (4): 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18
Qualification (1): 2011/12

Other EC records:

Cup Winners’ Cup:

Finalist (1): 2007/08

EHF Cup:

Winners (1): 2012/13
Semi-final (1): 2011/12
Last 16 (1): 2006/07

German league:
2 titles (2016, 2017)

German cup:
1 title (2018)


TEXT: Björn Pazen / cg
 
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