PREVIEW: The men's handball season comes to an end with the play-offs for the World Championship 2015
18 teams, nine spots, one dream: Qatar 2015
18 teams have their hopes up, but only nine will eventually celebrate - this is as easy as it gets before the European play-off matches for the Men’s World Championship 2015 in Qatar throw off this weekend.
After Spain (defending world champions), France (EHF EURO 2014 champions), Denmark and Croatia (ranked second and fourth at the EHF EURO 2014) have already clinched their berth for the 2015 event, nine more spots are available to European teams.
On the final day of the EHF EURO 2014 in Herning the draw took place, and some national federations were literally 'shocked' about the opponents they were drawn against, like in the cases Germany vs. Poland, Serbia vs. Czech Republic and Hungary vs. Slovenia.
Germany and Slovenia had missed the EHF EURO 2014, Czech Republic had missed the main round in Denmark and all three were therefore seeded in the second pot – they even knew before the draw that they were likely to face strong opponents.
The play-offs are played on 7/8 June and one week later on 14/15 June. For all matches the EHF live ticker is available.
Hungary vs. Slovenia
For the second time after 2010 both teams face in World Championship Play-offs. Four years ago one goal decided the encounter in favour of Hungary.
Slovenia had won the first leg 27:25, the Hungarians stroke back with a last-second goal of Gergö Ivancsik to win the re-match 28:25.
While Hungary were semi-finalists at the 2012 Olympic Games, Slovenia qualified for the 2013 World Championship Semi-final – but then failed to qualify for the 2014 EHF EURO.
An open duel can be expected – and one top nation will miss the World Championship 2015 in Qatar.
Romania vs. Sweden
Three-time world and four-time European champions Sweden are the clear favourites in this duel. Romania played far below par in spring, when they failed to advance in the intermediate play-offs for the EHF EURO 2016 against Switzerland.
Even the success of Romania’s national champions HCM Constanta, who reached the semi-final of the EHF Cup, should not be any sign of danger for Sweden, who will miss Kim Andersson because of an injury.
On the other side players like Tobias Karlsson will arrive on a high as he just won the VELUX EHF Champions League with SG Flensburg-Handewitt.
However, two years ago Romania sensationally eliminated Russia in the play-offs for the World Championship 2013 in Spain.
Poland vs. Germany
This is the ‘match of all matches’ for both sides: After Germany had missed the qualification for the 2012 Olympic Games and the EHF EURO 2014, they would suffer another severe blow if they fail to qualify again.
On the other hand, Poland need the ticket to Qatar to further develop their team for the EHF EURO 2016 on home courts.
There have been many encounters between these two teams in the past: In 2007 both sides faced in the World Championship Final in Cologne, which Germany won.
At the World Championship 2009 in Croatia a last second goal paved the way for Poland to the semi-final, while Germany bowed out.
At the EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia, Germany missed the semi-finals – and the last chance to qualify for the Olympic Games due to a last-minute defeat against Poland.
Greece vs. FYR Macedonia
This is a clash of two rivalling neighbours: While Greece were not able to continue their way to the top after they had ranked sixth at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, FYR Macedonia improved clearly in the recent years – mainly thanks to their world star Kiril Lazarov, the best scorer ever in the history of a single World and European Championship event and double top scorer of the EHF Champions League.
Greece count on a strong phalanx of players from German clubs, while the Macedonians are boosted by the success on club level.
Vardar and Metalurg Skopje made it to the quarter-final of the VELUX EHF Champions League, and right on time for the encounter former Slovenian Renato Vugrinec (Metalurg, second best scorer of the EHF Champions League 2013/14) has become eligible to play for FYR Macedonia.
Serbia vs. Czech Republic
This is another re-match of the play-offs for the World Championship 2011. Four years ago Serbia were eventually lucky to qualify for the final tournament in Sweden.
They had won their home match 27:23, but lost 22:25 away to Czech Republic – so one goal decided this double-header.
Ever since both sides literally developed into separate directions: Serbia took the silver medal on home court at the EHF EURO 2012 and qualified for the 2012 Olympic Games.
The Czechs missed the Olympic Games and the World Championship 2013 after losing in the play-offs to Russia, but then eliminated Germany on their way to the EHF EURO 2014.
The matches will bring together three of the world’s best shooters: Momir Ilic, who was just awarded top scorer of the VELUX EHF Champions League, and Marko Vujin, top scorer of the German Bundesliga, for Serbia and Filip Jicha, two-time EHF Champions League top scorer, IHF World Handball Player of the Year 2010 and top scorer of the EHF EURO 2010 for Czech Republic.
Russia vs. Lithuania
The roles are clearly marked, as Lithuania are the underdogs against former world, Olympic and European champions Russia.
Since 1998 the Lithuanians have not qualified for a major event.
Russia also had some disappointing years but put themselves back on track by qualifying for the World Championship 2013 Quarter-finals.
Bosnia-Herzegovina vs. Iceland
Bosnia-Herzegovina have not made it to a major international handball tournament since they became an independent nation.
They are known for their strength on home court as they proved two years ago in the play-offs for the World Championship 2013 when they beat Germany 33:24 – but eventually did not qualify because of a 24:36 defeat in Germany.
Iceland have been one the world’s top nations in handball for a decade, winning silver at the 2008 Olympic Games and bronze at the EHF EURO 2010 along the way.
The team includes Aron Palmarsson, who has just been awarded Most Valuable Player at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne.
Austria vs. Norway
Austria surprised experts with their encouraged and inspired performance at the EHF EURO 2014 – and these play-offs might be the last chance to qualify for a major event for a bunch of experienced Austrian players.
On the other hand, Norway changed their coach after the EHF EURO in January, when they missed the main round, and Christian Berge took over from Robert Hedin.
In their last test before the play-offs, Norway beat Germany 32:30.
Montenegro vs. Belarus
The two major surprise packages of the qualification for the EHF EURO 2014 face in a direct duel for a spot in Qatar.
Belarus – including five-time EHF Champions League winner Siarhei Rutenka – eliminated Slovenia on their way to Denmark, while Montenegro beat Germany twice.
Montenegro also beat Sweden in the play-offs for the World Championship 2013.
Because of their higher individual quality and bigger international experience, Belarus are slightly in the favourite’s role.
TEXT: Björn Pazen / ts
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