Mixed fortunes for Balkan teams in EHF EURO 2014 draw
Four teams from the former Yugoslavia took part in EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia, where the host nation won the silver medal and their traditional rivals Croatia finished third.
FYR Macedonia and Slovenia, who finished fifth and sixth respectively, completed an outstanding tournament for the Balkan countries in the 16-nation event.
The EHF EURO 2014 Qualification Phase 2 draw in Copenhagen suggests that the quartet, plus Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, will have a tough task if they are to emulate or exceed their EHF EURO 2012 accomplishments in two years’ time in at the Men's EHF EURO 2014 in Denmark.
Serbia have been drawn in what their coach Veselin Vukovic called the toughest of seven qualifying groups, where the EHF EURO 2012 runners-up will lock horns with Russia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Austria. With only the top two guaranteed a berth in EHF EURO 2014, Vukovic knows that any slip-up in this highly competitive group could be costly.
“Austria may be the easiest second-seeded opponents we could have asked for but Russia and Bosnia are the toughest rivals we could have possibly been drawn against from the other two pots.
“Perhaps we were a bit fortunate not to be pitted against the Swedes or the Czechs from pot two, but we will have to be at out best to qualify for the European Championship in Denmark,” Vukovic told Belgrade daily Sportski Zurnal.
“On the other hand, our rivals may also feel they have been drawn against the toughest top-seeded team,” said Vukovic, who will shortly travel around Europe to assess the form of Serbia’s top international players vying to stake their claims in his 14-man squad bound for the London 2012 Olympics.
He will certainly have been impressed by the good form of left back Momir Rnic, who is bidding to win the EHF Men's European cup with his German club Göppingen. Rnic was top scorer with eight goals in Göppingen’s 33:32 defeat by compatriots Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the first leg of their semi-final and said after the game he was confident Serbia would qualify for EHF EURO 2014, even if their campaign does not turn out to be plain sailing.
“All three of our rivals are good home teams while the Russians are certainly looking to return to the world’s elite after a barren EHF EURO 2012 campaign,” Rnic said.
“However, we should certainly finish in the top two and qualify for Denmark 2014. We have now put together three major events in row, having qualified for the Olympics and next year’s IHF World Championship in Spain. That will give us the confidence required to get through the EHF EURO qualifiers and keep up the good work,” he added.
FYR Macedonia, the surprise package of EHF EURO 2012, have been pitted against strong favourites Spain, Portugal and the winner of Phase 1 Qualifying Group B, where Switzerland, Greece, Italy and Great Britain will play for one berth in Phase 2.
Right wing Stevche Alushovski, one of FYR Macedonia’s key players in EHF EURO 2012, was confident his team would go through to the finals in Denmark although he acknowledged they had work to do in order to live up to rising expectations from their colourful and vociferous fans, who lit up the tournament in Serbia.
“It’s not an easy group but it could have been tougher and although it’s delicately balanced, my feeling is that Spain and FYR Macedonia should have the upper hand over the other two teams,” Alushovski told Macedonian media.
“Portugal too deserve respect and are awkward opposition by all means, although they are not a top-tier team,” he pointed out.
The Croatians should have a straightforward task against Hungary, Slovakia and one of the two runners-up who will advance from Qualifying Phase 1, while Slovenia’s credentials will be tested in a tricky group including Iceland, Belarus and the winner of Phase 1 Qualifying Group C, where the once mighty Romania should have the edge over Israel, Belgium and Ireland.
Finally, Montenegro have it all to do against Germany and the Czech Republic, while the other Phase 1 runners-up, set to join them to complete the group’s lineup, could also be a banana skin for the Adriatic country which had produced a number of outstanding players as part of the former Yugoslavia.
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TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic