PREVIEW : Starting on Friday this week, 18 nations battle for the nine remaining tickets to the Men's World Championship 2017 in France
Europe gets ready for World Championship Play-offs
While the current “big guns” of European men's handball have already qualified for the upcoming World Championship 2017 in France, the battle for the remaining nine European tickets at the 24-nation tournament will nevertheless be fierce.
Hosts and defending champions France, EHF EURO 2016 winners Germany as well former world champions Spain and Croatia have already secured their berth.
But for teams such as 2015 bronze medallists Poland and EHF EURO record winners Sweden there are still at least 120 minutes of full-on handball ahead if they want to progress to the final tournament.
One game will already be played on Friday, another three on Saturday and five on Sunday. All can be followed with the EHF live ticker.
Serbia vs Hungary, Friday 10 June at 18:00 hrs local time
Both teams will be seeking to redeem themselves after their most recent results have been anything but promising.
Neither Hungary, who lost their play-offs in 2014 to Slovenia, nor Serbia, who lost to Czech Republic, made it to the World Championship 2015. And both missed the qualification tournaments for the 2016 Olympic Games after Serbia did not make it past the preliminary round and Hungary did not win a game in the main round at the EHF EURO 2016.
The match will be the first true test for new Hungary head coach Javier Sabate, also the head coach of national champions MVM Veszprém, who was appointed on an interim basis back in March.
As for obvious reasons only one team can make it to the final tournament, both will be keen to get off to a good start when they meet in the Sports Hall Ribnica in Kraljevo on Friday evening.
Czech Republic vs FYR Macedonia, Saturday 11 June at 12.30 hrs local time
The Czechs will probably not only be eager to repeat their achievement from two years ago when they qualified for the World Championship 2015 in Qatar by beating Serbia in the play-offs.
They will also be keen on revenge against FYR Macedonia who qualified for the EHF EURO 2016 and left Czech Republic empty-handed in Qualification Group 6. Back then the first match ended with a 27:27 draw, while FYR Macedonia won their home game 32:28.
The Macedonians will try to rise from the disappointing failure to qualify for the Rio Olympics in August earlier this year.
The first leg takes place in the Euronics in Zlin, Czech Republic on Saturday.
Slovenia vs Norway, Saturday 11 June at 15:00 hrs local time
Slovenia will without doubt try to continue riding the wave of success from the Olympic qualification tournament in Sweden in April when they beat 2013 world champions Spain and eventually qualified for Rio.
However, Slovenian national coach Veselin Vujovic has his worries. With Klemen Cehte and Borut Mackovsek both injured, he has two replace two of his key backcourt players. Nevertheless, Norway's coach Christian Berge, who led his team to the semi-final at the EHF EURO 2016, warns his players.
“Slovenia are better than Croatia,” Berge told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. Norway lost to Croatia in the match for third place at the EHF EURO 2016 as well as at the Olympic qualification tournament.
“They are more unpredictable than Croatia due to the many defence formations they can play, and their backcourt players are particularly good at finding the line player,” said Christian Berge.
Poland vs Netherlands, Saturday 11 June at 20:00 local time
Poland have a bronze medal from Qatar 2015 to defend.
By winning their Olympic qualification tournament this spring, Poland redeemed themselves for a rather disappointing seventh place at the EHF EURO 2016 on home ground, and their new coach Talant Dujshebaev can now focus on qualifying his team for the final tournament in France.
There should not be any doubt that Dujshebaev will be full of confidence doing so after he led KS Vive Tauron Kielce to the top of the VELUX EHF Champions League at the EHF FINAL4 in Cologne less than two weeks ago.
The Netherlands still wait for their first participation at a major tournament such as the EHF EURO and World Championships, and they will have to accept the underdogs' role once more when they visit the Spodek Arena in Katowice.
Sweden vs Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sunday 12 June at 13:30 hrs local time
Two years ago Bosnia-Herzegovina qualified for the World Championship in Qatar by surprisingly beating Iceland in the play-offs, but the team is likely to have some difficulties repeating that feat against Sweden - although the Scandinavians do face some injury worries.
Two of the most experienced players in the Swedish squad, right back Kim Andersson and left wing Jonas Källman, are sidelined with injuries, and on Wednesday talented young left back Lukas Nilsson had to leave the Swedish training camp with a leg injury as well.
“It is particularly tough for us that Kim Andersson, who played outstandingly well at the Olympic qualifiers, cannot play, while it is also sad that Lukas cannot play these play-offs,” head coach Ola Lindgren was quoted on the Swedish Handball Federation's website.
Magnus Persson from VfL Gummersbach, Albin Lagergren from IFK Kristianstad and Helge Freiman from Eskilstunda Guif have been nominated as replacements by Lindgren and co-head coach Staffan Olsson.
Russia vs Montenegro, Sunday 12 June 15:00 hrs local time
It has been 19 years since Russia last won the World Championship. At Qatar 2015 they did not make it past the group phase and also their ninth place at the EHF EURO 2016 did not live up to the ambitious team's expectations – which is why qualifying for the World Championship 2017 is considered a must in Russia.
Montenegro have been to one World Championship so far, but at Spain 2013 they had to fly home after the group phase without having won a single point.
This unfortunate story repeated itself at the EHF EURO 2016 at which Montenegro exited the tournament after three consecutive defeats in the preliminary round.
Given both teams' international experience, Montenegro will probably have to accept the underdogs' role when they come to the Sport Palace Dynamo Kryltskoe in Moscow for the first leg.
Iceland vs Portugal, Sunday 12 June at 17:00 hrs ocal time
Iceland failed to qualify for the World Championship 2015, losing the play-offs in 2014 to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And while a wildcard eventually saved Iceland's participation at Qatar, the players will probably be warned by their defeat two years ago when they receive Portugal in the Laugardalshöll in Reykjavik on Sunday.
Portugal's last participation at World Championships dates back to 2003 when they hosted the event and the last EHF EURO they took part in was in 2006.
Hence Portugal are craving for another major tournament berth, but it is a questionable whether their wish will come true against Iceland.
The 2008 Olympic Games silver and 2010 EHF EURO bronze medallists are by far the more experienced squad and will be eager to produce a better performance than at the EHF EURO 2016 when they did not make it past the preliminary round.
Belarus vs Latvia, Sunday 12 June 17:00 hrs local time
Belarus have been part of the past two World Championships and the past two EHF EURO events, and in Poland this January their campaign at the EHF EURO 2016 ended with a tenth place.
In order to clinch their third consecutive World Championship berth, Belarus have to overcome Latvia who have not appeared at World Championship or EHF EURO level before.
Hence Belarus must be regarded as favourites ahead of the first leg in the Sport Palace Uruchje in Minsk on Sunday.
Denmark vs Austria, Sunday 12 June 20:15 hrs local time
At first sight Denmark appear as clear favourites, but it will be a Danish team severely hit by injuries that faces Austria in Odense on Sunday night.
Apart from the long-term injured line player René Toft Hansen and playmaker Rasmus Lauge, Denmark have to replace right back Mads Christiansen, who is suffering from ankle problems, as well as line player Jesper Nøddesbo who broke his nose in the Danish training camp on Tuesday.
“I'm not nominating any new right back. Instead, we will try alternative line-ups with our existing squad,” said Denmark's coach Gudmundur Gudmundsson. However, he nominated Anders Zachariasen from SG Flensburg-Handewitt as replacement for Nøddesbo.
Austria's coach Patrekur Jóhannesson sees the chance to spring a surprise.
“Denmark is an incredibly strong opponent with some Champions League players in their ranks, but we mainly look at ourselves,” he was quoted by the Austrian Handball Federation.
TEXT: Peter Bruun / ts
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