EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Russian head coach is wary of opponents Lithuania ahead of the World Championship play-offs
"Character will decide," says Kuleshov
Russia is back on the handball map. After some years of disappointment, including missing out on the 2011 World Championship and the 2012 Olympic Games, the former EHF EURO, world and Olympic champions have shown their improvement lately by reaching the 2013 World Championship Quarter-finals.
The men behind the success are new coaching duo Oleg Kuleshov and Alexander Rymanov. Since they took over from the legendary Vladimir Maximov, Russia played a completely new system, a modern, fast handball, not only scoring from their powerful back court shooters, but also through counter-attacks.
After ranking ninth at the 2014 EHF EURO in Denmark, the Russians were lucky in the draw for the 2015 World Championship play-offs. On 7 and 14 June they face Lithuania (not qualified for any major international event since 1998) for the spot in Qatar, with the first leg at home in Perm.
Since last week Kuleshov and Rymanov have gathered their team for preparation. In this exclusive interview with eurohandball.com, Kuleshov (world champion and 2002 EHF Champions League winner with SC Magdeburg) analyses the chances to book the “ticket to the desert” and how his team changed since he started.
eurohandball.com: Are all of your players fit for the play-offs?
Oleg Kuleshov: All of them have a long season behind and of course they feel a little bit tired and have some minor injuries. But they all have the great motivation to finish the season successfully by qualifying for Qatar. The only two top players, who will miss the play-offs, are Alexej Rastvortsev, who is injured, and line player Mikhail Chipurin, who was also out of the EHF EURO.
eurohandball.com: Are you satisfied with the start of the preparation?
Oleg Kuleshov: We started well, since Monday all players coming from abroad have joined the team, so we will go to Perm with a full squad of 18 players. On-site we will select those, who will be on court. Besides our stars, such as Timur Dibirov, Konstantin Igropoulo, Pavel Atman and Sergej Gorbok, we have nominated some fresh blood. Depending on the results, we will decide whether they get the chance to play.
eurohandball.com: Are you lucky to face Lithuania and not top nations like Germany or Slovenia, which would have been possible before the draw?
Oleg Kuleshov: Indeed, we were lucky. But all 18 teams in these play-offs, are aiming to make it to Qatar, as there you can also get much closer to reaching the Olympic Games in Rio. So we have to have respect for the Lithuanians. They come from a land with a long and successful handball tradition, and they have some really strong players. We will have two tough matches ahead.
eurohandball.com: Nevertheless, do you consider your team as the favourite?
Oleg Kuleshov: Yes, we do – but what does it mean to be a favourite in handball today? Barcelona and Kiel had been the favourites at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne and Flensburg beat both of them and took the title last weekend. Flensburg also proved something, my players have to be aware of in the play-offs against Lithuania. Today it does not mean that much when you are six goals below, because you can catch-up with nearly anything. So we have to be aware and fight until the final whistle has been blown. In the end, strength and character will decide whether we make it to Qatar or not.
eurohandball.com: Compared to previous years the structure of your team is completely different. Until 2013 nearly all Russian national team players were signed by record champions Chekhovskie Medvedi, now they are spread all over Europe. Do you see that as an advantage or a disadvantage?
Oleg Kuleshov: You have to see it from both sides. Having them all in the same club or in Russia means you can meet more often, you can start your preparation earlier and all are rehearsed.
However, to improve a national team, you must have the best players in the best clubs and the best leagues. So it is a major advantage for the individual improvement of the players and the improvement of the national team when they play abroad and are part of major international club competitions. The players gain international experience, they learn from new countries and cultures – and this brings our national team forward. Therefore I also advise the young players to grab the opportunity to play abroad.
TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor
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