MATCH PREVIEW: Füchse Berlin hope for a sold-out arena in the first semi-final of the EHF Cup Finals against Szeged on Saturday
Early birthday present or hosts’ triumph?
Will Pick Szeged coach Juan Carlos Pastor get a special present? On Sunday the Spaniard will celebrate his 46th birthday, and his team wants to gift him with a spot in the final of the EHF Cup Finals in the German capital.
But the hurdle is high, as the Hungarian runners-up face host Füchse Berlin, who will be supported by more than 7000 fans in the Max-Schmeling-Arena, fighting for their first ever international final in club history.
EHF Cup Finals, semi-final 1:
Will the support of the fans boost the host, or will the international experience of Szeged be enough to break an incredible series already in the semi-finals? For the last ten years (including the EHF Cup in the old format before 2013) the winner came from Germany. So if Szeged win on Saturday, the Hungarian side would break the historic run.
But the advantage of hosting the EHF Cup Finals is the big hope for Füchse, who play their second semi-final in an European Cup competition, after the 2012 defeat against THW Kiel at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne.
“We count on this special atmosphere,” said coach Dagur Sigurdsson at the official media call on Friday in the Max-Schmeling-Halle, the venue for the matches. By now around 7,500 tickets have been sold, and the organizer expects a sold-out hall on Saturday, as only 1,000 tickets are for sale.
“This will be a great opportunity for us to profit from the atmosphere,” said Iker Romero, who has the “green light” from the doctors after he had missed the last Bundesliga match of Füchse due to an injury. “We nearly can count on the full squad,” Sigurdsson hopes that Bartlomiej Jaska will also be able to play: “He told me that he is willing to be on the court,” said Sigurdsson, who also can count on long-term injured German international Sven Sören Christophersen.
The only time both teams faced in the European Cup history was in the VELUX EHF Champions League season 2012/13, when Füchse won both encounters in the Group Phase.
In the German league, Berlin are currently fifth ranked, which means that they definitely will be part of the EHF Cup next season, while Szeged missed the Hungarian title after two defeats in the finals against VELUX EHF FINAL4 participant MVM MKB Veszprem last weekend. “But if we play like we did against Veszprem, we have a chance against Berlin,” coach Juan Carlos Pastor hopes.
He invented the “Spanish-Hungarian style”, praised by team captain Attila Vadkerti: “This makes us stronger. We changed so much since he arrived, but now all players understand what he wants, and we fit perfectly now.”
For Füchse goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter there is “definitely not a favourite in our semi with Szeged, as both teams are on the same level. But we are confident enough to say that it is our great goal to make it to the final on home court.”
Berlin managed to avoid the quarter-finals as winner of their group, despite floundering against Meshkov Brest in the qualification. In their first international matches of the season, both EHF Cup semi-finalists shared the fate of elimination in Champions League qualification. While Berlin were defeated by defending champions HSV Hamburg, Pick Szeged lost against eventual quarter-finalist Metalurg Skopje.
In the Group Phase, Szeged fought hard with Nantes for the top spot of their group, and finally managed it on goal difference. In the quarter-finals, the Hungarian side lost their match against Sporting CP, before turning the tides on home ground.
“It was closer than expected, but we deserve to be here,” said coach Pastor. He can make history - if his team wins both matches in Berlin this weekend: Two weeks ago, another Spanish coach, Ambros Martin, won the Women’s EHF Champions League FINAL4 with a Hungarian team Györ.
But the situation is not the best for Szeged, as Pick will miss the three-time Champions League winner with Ciudad Real, Swedish left wing Jonas Källman, who is recovering from an ankle operation.
“It is hard for us to replace him, but we are used to the fact that all players most be able to play in all positions. This is the strength of our team,” team captain Attila Vadkerti says. He hopes for a special present for his coach: “He has birthday on Sunday, a first gift would be reaching the final, and another big present would be this trophy - but those are dreams, we are far away from this,” Vadkerti added on Friday.
As for Pastor? “I don’t care about my birthday right now. What happens, happens. We will see. We are prepared, and we go step by step. So I have no clue what my birthday present will be.”
TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor
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