PREVIEW: It is crunch time in the World Championship Play-offs, with eight matches, including some truly top-class encounters, being played this weekend
Play-offs get major names in women’s handball out of comfort zone
Some of the major nations in women’s handball will have to find other things to do in December than playing the World Championship in Denmark.
The European qualification comes to a close over the next two weekends, with the first and second legs of the play-offs being played from 5 to 7 and 13/14 June (Austria face Hungary in the first leg already this Friday).
These play-offs include encounters between teams that are usually considered regulars at final tournaments – but only the winner will qualify for Denmark 2015.
The EHF offers a live ticker for all matches. The Women’s World Championship 2015 takes place in Denmark from 5 to 20 December 2015.
Netherlands vs Czech Republic, Saturday 6 June, 16:00 hrs local time
While the Netherlands produced a good performance at the EHF EURO 2014, when they reached the main round and eventually finished seventh, the Czech Republic will be eager to return among Europe’s top teams after they failed to qualify for the EHF EURO 2014.
However, they are likely to be in for a tough challenge against the Netherlands who definitely have the appetite for another major championship.
However, the Dutch optimism may have suffered a bit lately as both test matches they played this week were lost.
While there was still a certain content in the Dutch camp following the 29:31 loss to Germany, no one was satisfied following the 20:30 defeat to Sweden – a game in which the Swedes even led 17:6 at half-time.
Czech Republic eliminated Azerbaijan and Lithuania without major problems in the first phase of this European qualification.
Serbia vs Romania Saturday 6 June, 18:00 hrs local time
There is no doubt that Serbia will need all the support they can possibly get from the spectators in the Sports Hall Ribnica in Kraljevo, if they want to achieve a good result ahead of the return match in Romania next week.
Serbian coach Sasa Boskovic is missing no less than four key players: 2013 World Handball Player of the Year Andrea Lekic, Sanja Damnjanovic, Katarina Tomasovic and Dragana Cvijic are not part of the team.
However, Boskovic has great confidence in the team.
"I have no doubt that the girls will fight, but we cannot afford to lose patience. If we stay focused all the time, we can do it," he says.
For Romania, this will be the first real task for the team’s new Swedish coach Tomas Ryde who took over when Gheorghe Tadici resigned shortly after the European Championship.
55-year-old Ryde, whose greatest triumph so far is winning the Women’s EHF Champions League with Viborg HK in 2006, is back in the handball business after he had been working in other jobs for the past five years.
"Our clear objective is to qualify for the World Championship," he says.
Ukraine vs Poland, Saturday 6 June, 19:00 hrs local time
Ukraine will be eager to make up for missing the main round at the EHF EURO 2014 last December.
They face a Polish side that made it to the main round and that can furthermore boast that they reached the semi-final at the World Championship 2013.
However, Poland’s coach Kim Rasmussen does not really know what to expect of his team ahead of the first match in the Karpaty Arena of Uzhgorod.
"We have had quite a lot of injuries, so we are sending on a relatively new team. I honestly don’t really know, where we stand at the moment," he tells eurohandball.com.
"We have done rather well in two test matches against Iceland, but I realise that we will be facing a team of Ukrainian players who have played together for many years and who know each other very well.
"However, they will probably play in the same way they have always done, so I don’t expect them to be able to surprise us with anything," adds Kim Rasmussen.
Spain vs Slovakia, Sunday 7 June, 14:00 hrs local time
The Spanish women’s team has some expectations to live up to after their brilliant performance at the EHF EURO 2014 in Hungary and Croatia last December when they won silver.
The hurdle, they will have to overcome to get to the World Championship, is Slovakia.
Spain appear as clear favourites in this first match in the Centro Insular de Deportes de Gran Canaria in Las Palmas – and as favourites overall as well against a Slovakian team that finished 12th at the EHF EURO.
Germany vs Russia, Sunday 7 June, 15:00 hrs local time
Neither Germany nor Russia will have particularly fond memories of the EHF EURO 2014, the last major tournament they played, when they meet in the Anhalt Arena of Dessau on Sunday afternoon.
While Germany finished tenth, Russia failed to qualify for the main round and eventually ended up 14th.
However, Germany can at least look back to the success of reaching the quarter-finals at the World Championship 2013 – Russia did not even qualify for this event.
The match will be the first real test for Germany’s new coach, Dane Jakob Vestergaard.
"Russia will be some kind of a true test, but we have known that all the time. It’s hard to say what will be a good result for us in the first match, as there is not that much of a difference between playing at home and away in Europe these days.
"However, I think it is a bit sad that one of these two great teams will not make it to the final tournament in Denmark," Vestergaard tells eurohandball.com.
He has a well-known assistant at his side in former German international Grit Jurack, whom he had been coaching for several years when Jurack played for Viborg HK.
France vs Slovenia, Sunday 7 June, 17:00 hrs local time
It will be a combination of experience and youth French coach Alain Portes sends on to the court at the Arena Brest for the match against Slovenia – and he expects in particular his young players to deliver.
"The young players have brought a lot of fresh spirit and positive vibrations to the team, I think," he says.
France, who finished fifth at the EHF EURO 2014, appear as favourites against a Slovenian team, that did not make it to the EHF EURO but that defeated Switzerland, Greece and Belarus in first qualification phase for the Women’s World Championship 2015.
Croatia vs Sweden Sunday 7. June 17.15 local time
The two teams will have very different memories from their most recent participation at a major tournament when they meet in the Sport Hall Fran Galovic in Koprivnica on Sunday.
While Croatia did not advance to the main round, Sweden went almost all the way and eventually won bronze. They had met Croatia in the tournament's preliminary round, beating them 30:28.
Croatia’s new coach, Goran Mrden is determined to achieve a better result for his team this time.
"We have the team, we have the quality. Most of our players play at top clubs. I want my Croatia team to show their warrior spirit. I want them to play with desire and dedication," he said.
Helle Thomsen, who is in charge of the Swedish team together with Thomas Sivertsson, has a lot of respect for Croatia.
"They were probably the toughest opponent we could get. They are without doubt eager to make up for the disappointment at the (EHF) EURO, where I think they were put off by (Miranda) Tatari´s injury, so I really expect a tough challenge," Thomsen tells eurohandball.com.
Montenegro vs Iceland, Sunday 7 June, 20:30 hrs local time
After winning the Women’s EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia, Montenegro have been having difficulties to reach the absolute top again.
At the World Championship 2013 the Last 16 was the final destination for the team; at the EHF EURO 2014 they eventually placed fourth.
A 27:23 win in a test match against Russia this week should have granted them some self-confidence ahead of the first meeting with Iceland, but coach Dragan Adzic will have to replace some players.
Goalkeeper Sonja Barjaktarovic, back court player Marija Jovanovic and right wing Jovanka Radicevic are all missing.
Adzic’s team, nevertheless, are clear favourites against Iceland who had no particular problems with Italy and FYR Macedonia in the first qualification phase.
They will be in for a considerably tougher test in the S. C. Moraca in Podgorica where Montenegro´s strongest club team, Women’s EHF Champions League winner Buducnost, is used to celebrate their victories.
TEXT: Peter Bruun / ts
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