PREVIEW: For the third time in succession, a new winner of the Men’s EHF Cup will have to be found when the EHF Cup Finals return to Berlin
New winner to be found again
For the third year in a row, a new winner will have to be found in the Men´s EHF Cup and the lucky team will come from the group phase which starts this week.
2013 winners Rhein-Neckar Löwen are in the VELUX EHF Champions League this season, and this also applies not only to last year’s winners Pick Szeged but also to their opponents in the final Montpellier Agglomeration HB.
However, maybe the winners are still to be found among the four participants in the Finals last season, as both losing semi-finalists from the final weekend in Berlin are to be found in this season’s edition of the tournament.
Füchse Berlin and HCM Constanta, who finished third and fourth respectively last year, are both in the group phase and both are in with a chance of not only repeating last season’s semi-final berth, but also going a step further.
Füchse may have an advantage in that respect as they will have the home advantage once again should they make it to the final tournament. The Max-Schmeling-Halle will welcome the top four sides on 16/17 May.
Six or eight quarter-final spots at stake
At first sight, the modus of the tournament is quite simple. Number one and two in each of the four groups qualify for the quarter-finals, from which the winners obviously proceed to Berlin.
However, some things depend on the way hosts Füchse perform in the group phase. If Füchse win their group or finish among the three best second ranked teams in the group phase, they qualify directly for the EHF Cup Finals.
This means that there will only be three quarter-finals instead of four, and that the worst second ranked team will be out of the tournament.
In case Füchse finish second in their group and are also the worst ranked number two in all the groups, they will have to play the quarter-finals, and there will be four quarter-finals.
If Füchse finish third or fourth in their group, they will be out of the tournament, and the quarter-finals will be played between eight teams as usual.
Favourites hard to spot
If they make it all the way to the Finals again, Füchse may be considered to be among the favourites again.
However, it is generally difficult to point out really big favourites among the 16 teams in the group phase in what looks like the most even EHF Cup since the current tournament system was introduced in 2012.
Of course, it is always natural to look for the German Bundesliga to find favourites, and that is what most coaches in the 16 remaining teams tend to be doing.
A club with proud European traditions like HSV Hamburg will always draw some attention.
However, the Northern German team had problems getting past Swedish side IFK Kristianstad in the third and last qualification round for the group phase, and their current 11th place in the Bundesliga does not point towards a favourite either. Other German teams may seem more likely as possible winners.
We mentioned Füchse already. The Foxes may only be one step above Hamburg in the current Bundesliga table, but the possible home advantage in the finals speaks in favour of Füchse.
Their talented young left back Paul Drux must have returned from the World Championship in Qatar with additional self-confidence, and that may come in useful for Füchse.
We also have to mention the third German team in the competition. A lack of European experience may speak against MT Melsungen, but the current number six in the Bundesliga possesses a lot of potential and their group does not look frightening.
If we are going to look for possible tournament winners outside of Germany, there are a couple of dark horses to keep an eye on.
One of those could be Team Tvis Holstebro, who sprung a surprise two years ago by reaching the Finals and finishing third.
The Danish team’s charismatic coach Klavs Bruun Jørgensen will undoubtedly want to finish his time with Holstebro in style, before taking over as the Denmark women’s national team coach, and what better way to say goodbye after three years than by going all the way in the EHF Cup?
Another possible dark horse could be Futebol Clube de Porto, who did quite well in the group phase of the VLUX EHF Champions League last season and have gained a taste for big matches in Europe.
Although Hamburg may have trouble going all the way, they look like favourites to win this group.
Gorenje Velenje, who have stepped down from the VELUX EHF Champions League last season to the EHF Cup this year, look like a hot candidate for runners-up, while Haslum and Winterthur may have trouble challenging for the quarter-finals.
This group appears to be the most open in the group phase. St. Petersburg were in the VELUX EHF Champions League group phase last season, but without having much of an impact.
Constanta have lost several players after their fourth place in the EHF Cup last season and we will still have to see where Granollers stand in their European comeback, leaving Team Tvis Holstebro with a good chance to win the group, if the Danish team can remain consistent throughout the group phase.
The run for second place ought to be close, maybe with Granollers holding a small advantage.
Füchse should be able to win this group, while the race for the second position looks to be a battle between Porto and Skjern.
If Porto can transfer their good performances from the Champions League last season to this season’s EHF Cup group phase, they stand with a good chance, while on-going defensive problems may become a millstone around the neck of Skjern in their efforts to do better than last year, where failing to go on from the group phase was a big disappointment for the club.
The onus will be on Melsungen to win the group, while the race for second position may be tight.
Balatonfüredi are striving to get out of the shadow of Hungarian handball’s two top teams, Veszprem and Pick Szeged, and this tournament could help them along the way.
Nexe cannot be written off, while Eskilstuna will want to do better than in their group phase debut two years ago, when they failed to gain a single point, but the Swedish team may have difficulties in challenging the top two places.
TEXT: Peter Bruun / cor
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