Coach Ivica Obrvan has faith in right-back Marko Kopljar rediscovering his form for Zagreb.
Zagreb banking on Kopljar to rediscover his edge
The clash of titans from the former Yugoslavia between Macedonian champions Metalurg Skopje and Croatian title holders Croatia Osiguranje Zagreb produced a physical and low-scoring battle in the first leg of their VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 clash.
Metalurg, playing in Europe’s premier club competition for the first time, carried over their good form from the group stages and ran out 19-18 winners in front of a fervent 7,000 home crowd in the Boris Trajkovski Arena.
And the knife-edged tie is set to go down to the wire when the two teams meet again in the return leg in Zagreb, where the winners of 20 Croatian and two EHF Men's Champions League titles will be the favourites to advance to the quarter-finals.
Metalurg’s Serbian goalkeeper Darko Stanic produced a scintillating performance in the first match with 11 saves while Marko Kopljar, Croatia’s top performer in January’s EHF EURO 2012, had a quiet evening and failed to get on the scoresheet.
Lino Cervar, Metalurg’s head coach who had won eight successive league titles with Zagreb before moving to FYR Macedonia, deployed an iron-clad defence which kept Kopljar at bay throughout the contest. But Zagreb coach Ivica Obrvan is confident the towering left-handed right back, introduced to Croatia’s national team by Cervar three years ago, will start firing on all cylinders in the return leg.
"Kopljar is the kind of player who is worth waiting for to rediscover his shooting form even if he keeps misfiring throughout the match," Obrvan told Croatian media in the build-up to the eagerly awaited clash, the fourth between Metalurg and Zagreb this season.
"He did not have a good shooting day because he was marked tightly but he dished out several good assists and produced two penalty shots for us. I could have tried with a right-handed player in his position in the latter stages of the game but I stuck with Marko because the two alternatives, Luka Sebetic and Luka Stepancic, are just too young and inexperienced at this level," Obrvan added.
"We had several chances to seal the match and the tie when we went three goals ahead, but our back court players underperformed and we are not happy with the outcome, although we have every chance of swinging the tie our way on our home turf," he added.
The two teams are also competing in the regional SEHA league incorporating teams from the former Yugoslavia and Slovakia’s Tatran Presov. Their first SEHA league encounter in Skopje ended in a 19-19 draw while Zagreb won the reverse fixture 30-25 just a week before they met again in the Macedonian capital in the Champions League.
Cervar, who has built up the present Zagreb side to their present level during his eight-year spell in charge during which he has won as many league titles before clinching two successive titles with Metalurg, said the Macedonian champions would head into the return leg under no pressure.
"We are overjoyed with the outcome of the first leg, although it’s a slender advantage to take to Zagreb because we beat a team which has the stature of an institution when it comes to European club handball," Cervar said.
"Beating Zagreb was another great success in what is turning into an historic season for our club, hence we are relishing yet another clash with my old acquaintances because we have nothing to lose. Of course we need to eradicate the mistakes we made in the first leg, where defences dominated at both ends. The idea is to produce a similar kind of performance and turn the match into a low-scoring contest, that’s our best chance of advancing to the last eight of the competition but all I can ask for is a good performance from my team," he added.
Winger Zlatko Horvat, Zagreb’s top scorer in the VELUX EHF Champions League, scored three goals in the first leg and said his individual accomplishment paled in significance alongside the team's objective of reaching the quarter-finals.
"I am really not bothered how many goals I score because team success is all that matters and I would be unhappy if I finished as the Champions League top scorer and we were knocked out at this stage of the competition," Horvat said.
Zarko Markovic, who led Metalurg and all scorers in the first leg with seven goals, said the Macedonian champions would leave it all on the court to spring another upset.
"We know that a one-goal lead we are carrying into the return leg guarantees nothing but it will certainly have boosted our confidence. Zagreb are the favourites to go through but we will play our hearts out to reach the Champions League quarter-finals," said Markovic.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic
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