Close duels expected
In Group 2 both favourites Oltchim Rm. Vâlcea and Budućnost have the maximum of four points in the bank, and in their direct duel, a victory for one of them could mean one big step closer to reaching the semi-final of the EHF Champions League.
In the group´s other clash, Metz and Krim will fight for their first point(s) in the Main Round which would maintain their chances of advancing to the Top 4.
In Group 1 the situation is almost the same, except that last year´s finalist Itxako stole a point from title holder Larvik in Norway, and with a win over FC Midtjylland in their second duel in Scandinavia, they would be back in the race.
On Sunday, Győri Audi ETO will welcome the reigning champions of Larvik, with the hope of pocketing maximum points after three rounds.
ehfTV.com has live coverage of the Group 1 match FC Midtjylland (DEN) vs. Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra (ESP) on Saturday, but regional restrictions apply.
For regional TV listings of all the EHF Women's Champions League matches click HERE.
FC Midtjylland (DEN) vs. Grupo Asfi Itxako Navarra (ESP)
Saturday 18 February, 14:30 hrs (local time)
Live on ehfTV.com (regional restrictions apply)
The two bottom teams will meet in an ehfTV.com duel to battle out which one of them will maintain chances for a possible semi-final entry.
The Danes have clearly lost both of their games so far, but despite an eight-goal defeat last weekend in Hungary, coach Ryan Zinglersen has some praise for his side:
"The result is somewhat misleading, as we lost power in the last 10 minutes of each half and our opponents punished our mistakes. We were fighting very well for most of the game."
Zinglersen continued: "Sabine Englert had a good game between the posts and we scored 27 goals away, and that against Győr, is really good. Unfortunately we missed 5-7 clear-cut chances, as we were not sharp enough."
FCM had massive problems defensively with Heidi Løke, as their defensive line lacked the physique to withstand Győr´s tall and strong players.
The trainer is still optimistic about progressing to the EHF Champions League semi-finals: "If we beat Itxako on Saturday, then we are back in the business, and our chances will suddenly be back again. Then, we would try to do everything we can to influence a group that is so incredibly strong. There might be some other surprises in our favour."
Against Itxako, Zinglersen will rely on his speedy wing players for fast breaks, and sharpshooter Trine Troelsen, who showed high-class performances in her side´s first two Main Round matches.
On the other side, prior to the Main Round, the Spaniards clearly set the goal of advancing from the group and in Larvik, coach Ambros Martín´s team showed the strength of the Spanish champions.
Despite an early exit of back-court player Nerea Pena, her team-mates fought like lions throughout the match and had great chances to steal both points from the feared Larvik Arena.
At the end they earned one point, and in their second Scandinavian duel within a week, the team aims for their first brace of points.
On Saturday they will miss the 22-year old Pena who was seriously injured last weekend. The left-back was scanned in Pamplona and her MRI revealed a broken anterior cruciate ligament and medial, as well as the meniscus in her right knee being affected.
She will need a long recovery time and won´t be able to help her side any more this season. "I don´t know exactly what happened in that incident. I’ve made this move a thousand times before and nothing went wrong. Everyone has advised me about the importance to being well mentally," Pena said.
The back-court player will support her colleagues off the court and knows about the importance of the match on Saturday: "It’s a key game, as both teams are in the same boat: chances will remain good with a victory, but if you lose, then you´re almost out of the competition."
Győri Audi ETO (HUN) vs. Larvik (NOR)
Sunday 19 February, 17:15 hrs (local time)
One of the most, if not the most, anticipated duel will take place in Hungary with a Clash of the Titans between two marvelous teams!
With least conceded goals in the Main Round, the great defensive play of Larvik will meet Győr, who have the most goals so far, and with a highly skilled attack. In addition, both teams have several Norwegian National Team players in their squad and they will be very eager to face each other on the court.
On one side it will be the main core of the national team, but Győri Audi ETO also have two important profiles in their ranks, both of whom have given magnificent performances recently.
Itxako´s attackers were driven to despair in the first round, as goalkeeper Katrine Lunde Haraldsen showed dozens of athletic heroics. Last weekend it was line player Heidi Løke who impressed the crowd, making the line her playground, and scoring 11 super goals.
It’s not only the players that are waiting with great excitement for this spicy duel, but also the two coaches! And they know each other very well, as they have been working at the same club of Larvik for many years, so to meet again will be something special.
Despite the fantastic goalkeeping of Haraldsen and Katalin Pálinger, a key element for the match against Larvik will be the shape of the Győr defence, which coach Karl Erik Bøhn described against FCM with one word: catastrophic.
In a dress rehearsal on Wednesday evening, the Hungarians impressed greatly by defeating last year´s domestic league silver medalist DVSC-Fórum by a clear 46:18.
Larvik coach Ole Gustav Gjekstad expects a tough clash, where "both teams know each other, and their concept and way of playing well."
In a recent interview with ehfCL.com the trainer stressed that his side "has to put a tough defence in front of the Hungarians to disturb and stop their game plan."
And indeed Győr impressed so far with several variations, beautiful assists and lots of individual moves for attacks in their game plan. The spectators and handball insiders are looking forward to this classy match and awaiting an exciting and nail-biting thriller.
Metz Handball (FRA) vs. RK Krim Mercator (SLO)
Saturday 18 February, 16:30 hrs (local time)
In the basement duel, two disappointed teams will aim for their first point(s) in the Main Round.
The French champions are returning to their home turf after a clear defeat in Romania. Against Oltchim, coach Sébastien Gardillou´s team didn’t have the opportunity to display their potential and saw the gap that separates them from the elite of women´s handball.
Nevertheless, with Ekaterina Andryushina as the main director of Metz´s game plan, and with thousands of vociferous spectators, the Moselle-based team wants to keep the two points at home.
Krim´s Kristina Franić is a former Metz player, and is returning to France with the clear ambition of surprising the hosts.
The key question will be whether her side can repeat the first half performance of last weekend against Budućnost where coach Tone Tiselj´s team presented their best 30 minutes in the Main Round so far.
In this period the Slovenians showed great fighting spirit and fought for every ball, but the second half showed exactly the opposite and when Tiselj´s team fell so far behind, they had no chance of catching up.
With two defeats both teams seem to be out of the race for the semi-final, but a victory would bring one of them to the circle of semi-final candidates.
C.S. Oltchim Rm. Vâlcea (ROU) vs. Budućnost (MNE)
Sunday 12 February, 18:00 hrs (local time)
Just like the hot duel of Győri Audi ETO against Larvik, the meeting of these two 'powerhouses' will be another tough thriller for the involved teams and an expected high-class game for the numerous spectators in the Sala Sporturilor Traian in Rm. Vâlcea.
Both, the Romanian and Montenegrin champions have performed very well so far, and collected the maximum of four points in the Main Round.
The away side, Budućnost, struggled a bit in both of their matches, as Bojana Popović and company could only scrape a tight victory in Metz, and then had massive problems in the first half on home soil against Krim. But then, with an improved defence, coach Dragan Adžić´s team marched through the Slovenians and won at the end clearly.
In goalkeeper Clara Woltering´s opinion, her side must minimize the fluctuations in their game plan, and then it should be possible to bring home two points from Romania.
Budućnost´s ex-player Marija Jovanović is playing for Oltchim this season, so for her, the game against her former club will be a very special one. Still, the gifted left-back doesn´t want to go into favourites and tactics in this duel, and she says that "we want to earn two more points at the weekend to make one more step towards our final goal."
Despite still missing centre-back Cristina Neagu, Oltchim is gelling together well this season, which Jovanović also conforms: "The most important thing is that we feel like a team and we all breathe as one. It’s true that we have outstanding individual players who can decide the outcome of a match in the blink of an eye, but this year, we also perform well as a team."
The 26-year-old continued: "There is always room for improvement, but if we continue performing at such a high level, I´m convinced we will be very satisfied at the season´s end."
TEXT: Márk Hegedüs