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23.10.2018, 15:58
The race to the EHF EURO 2020 begins
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PREVIEW: The EHF EURO 2020 Qualification Phase starts with 32 teams taking the court for their first matches along the challenging road to the final tournament in Austria, Norway and Sweden
 

The race to the EHF EURO 2020 begins

The biggest ever EHF EURO Qualification Phase, on the road to the new-format EHF EURO 2020, begins on Wednesday with 11 matches taking place across Europe, followed by five games on Thursday. The 2020 event will be the first with 24 teams, with 20 places to be decided among the 32 teams in the qualification phase.

The 20 tickets will go to the top two sides in each of the eight playing groups, as well as the four best third-ranked teams overall. These 20 sides will join already qualified 2018 champions Spain, as well as the host nations Sweden, Austria and Norway, on the list of nations to vie for the trophy.

All qualification matches will be streamed live on ehfTV.com.

GROUP 1
Germany vs Israel – Wednesday 24 October, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Buoyed by their fans in a sold-out Rittal Arena Wetzlar, EHF EURO 2016 champions Germany will look to start their campaign strong – not only to set them on the path towards the EHF EURO 2020 but also with the upcoming World Championship at home in January in mind.

“We have two main goals: First, we want to successfully start the qualification for the EHF EURO 2020. Also, we would like to prepare ourselves as a team for the home World Championship,” Germany coach Christian Prokop told the German Handball Federation website. “The teams from Israel and Kosovo are not part of the top internationally but, as outsiders, will try everything to surprise us and to demand the maximum.”

After sensationally winning the EHF EURO 2016 despite a series of injuries, Germany were eliminated in the EHF EURO 2018 Main Round. Four players that did not participate in the EHF EURO 2018 have joined the roster for the qualification: Niclas Pieczkowski, Tim Suton, Martin Strobel and Franz Semper. Fabian Wiede was named in the team but ruled out by injury at the IHF Super Globe.

While Germany have made it to every EHF EURO apart from 2014, Israel qualified once, in 2002, when they finished in 14th place.

GROUP 2
Croatia vs Switzerland – Thursday 25 October, 20:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

2018 did not start as Croatia hoped. The home EHF EURO in January saw the team record their worst result since 2002 – though it was a respectable fifth place, Croatia had made it to the semi-finals at the seven consecutive EUROs leading up to 2018. The months since have been more positive for Croatia, and they are motivated to continue on this trajectory.

“I want to say immediately that it will be quite difficult. I know that we are, on paper, the favourites and we do not run from it, but I’m worried because it underestimates our opponents,” Croatia coach Lino Cervar told the official website of the Croatian Handball Federation. “Andre Schmid came back and we know how much it means. We have to expect a seven-on-six and be prepared for this.”

As Cervar outlined, Switzerland’s dangerous back Andy Schmid will be the key player for his side to watch out for. Croatia count on their stars such as Domagoj Duvnjak and Luka Cindric, who are joined by rising talents including SEHA League 2017/18 top scorer Halil Jaganjac and a debutant to watch in this round of EHF EURO qualifiers, Ivan Martinovic.

GROUP 4
Slovenia vs Latvia – Wednesday 24 October, 20:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Slovenia are another national side who have ridden a rollercoaster over the past two years. At the World Championship 2017, they pulled off a spectacular comeback to win their first World Championship medal – bronze. Slovenia entered the EHF EURO 2018 as a favoured side but were quite unlucky, with a series of close results against them that meant their dreams ended in the main round.

But the biggest shock was to come: Slovenia lost their World Championship Qualification Play-off to Hungary by one goal and will therefore miss the 2019 event.

22-year-old goalkeeper Urh Kastelic, who enjoyed a spectacular debut at the EHF EURO 2018, playing a key role as Slovenia became the only team to defeat Spain on the path to their trophy, said the atmosphere in the team is always positive and remains so ahead of the qualification matches.

“We are missing the World Championship in January so we have to be careful in these qualifications. We respect Latvia and we have to give 100% to play a good game and take these two points,” said the Zagreb keeper.

Slovenia have made it to every EHF EURO final tournament apart from two, in 1998 and 2014. Latvia have never qualified for a major international championship.

GROUP 6
France vs Lithuania – Thursday 25 October, 20:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

When current world champions France take the court for their opening EHF EURO 2020 qualifier, there will be a noticeable absence: Nikola Karabatic. The back underwent foot surgery in mid-October, which means he will miss the World Championship 2019. France are also without the best young player of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2017/18: HBC Nantes’ Romain Lagarde, who has a minor injury.

Even without their leading superstar, France are the favourites ahead of the encounter with Lithuania, as coach Didier Dinart has no shortage of world-class players at his disposal.

“With the absence of Nikola Karabatic and Romain Lagarde, the look of our team has changed. We will strengthen the wing position with Mathieu Grebille because he will also be able to defend on position two,” Dinart told the French Handball Federation website. “We have three right backs: Timothey N'Guessan, Kentin Mahe and Nicolas Claire. These last two will be able to defend on the wing.”

It is the second EHF EURO Qualification Phase in which these teams have met – France beat Lithuania in their two EHF EURO 2018 Qualification encounters. Lithuania have made it to one EHF EURO, in 1998, and to one World Championship, in 1997.

GROUP 7
Hungary vs Slovakia – Wednesday 24 October, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Hungary are an ever-present threat in men’s handball and can never be underestimated – their elimination of 2016 Olympic champions Denmark at the World Championship 2017 and their World Championship 2019 Qualification Play-off win versus Slovenia stand out as two recent examples of their strength. However, Hungary have never won a medal at a major international event.

Still, their qualification record for the EHF EURO is strong, as they missed only two editions, in 2000 and 2002. Since then, Hungary have made it to every EHF EURO, while their Round 1 opponents Slovakia have a less steady record. Slovakia have qualified for three EHF EUROs, in 2006, 2008 and 2012.

Ljubomir Vranjes was let go as Hungary coach only weeks ago, following his dismissal from VELUX EHF Champions League side Veszprém, and the team will play their first two rounds of EHF EURO Qualification matches with István Csoknyai at the helm.

Remaining matches in Round 1:

GROUP 1
Poland vs Kosovo – Wednesday 24 October, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 2
Serbia vs Belgium – Wednesday 24 October, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 3
Iceland vs Greece – Wednesday 24 October, 19:45 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
FYR Macedonia vs Turkey – Thursday 25 October, 20:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 4
Netherlands vs Estonia – Thursday 25 October, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 5
Czech Republic vs Finland – Wednesday 24 October, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Belarus vs Bosnia-Herzegovina – Thursday 25 October, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 6
Portugal vs Romania – Wednesday 24 October, 20:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 7
Russia vs Italy – Wednesday 24 October, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

GROUP 8
Montenegro vs Faroe Islands – Wednesday 24 October, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Denmark vs Ukraine – Wednesday 24 October, 21:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com


TEXT: Courtney Gahan / ew
 
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