FEATURE: Following their early elimination from the Women's EHF Champions League, and a change of head coach, Rostov-Don impressed in the EHF Cup Group Phase and hope to continue their good form in the knockout phase.
Ambitious Rostov eager to win Women's EHF Cup
Rostov-Don have had their share of setbacks and disappointments on the European stage in the last couple of years, but now the Russian side are hoping for a change of fortune.
Following impressive performances in the EHF Cup Group Phase, where they topped a competitive Group C, Rostov are seen as favourites ahead of the knockout phase.
In the quarter-final they will face Brest Bretagne Handball, with matches taking place on 04 March in Brest and 11 March in Rostov.
Rostov's French head coach Frederic Bougeant is wary of an opponent whom he knows very well. "This is one of the top teams in France, and in my opinion the best handball project in the country. They have a lot of quality players," he says.
While most Russian teams rely on domestic players, Rostov managed to bring in a number of renowned internationals in recent years, such as the famous Norwegian goalkeeper Katrine Lunde, Danish playmaker Lotte Grigel, French left wing Siraba Dembele and Spanish left back Alexandrina Cabral Barbosa.
These acquisitions, combined with Russian Olympic champions Anna Sedoykina, Vladlena Bobrovnikova, Anna Vyakhireva, Ekaterina Ilina, Maya Petrova, and Anna Sen, make up a star-studded squad - and no wonder Rostov's management set the highest goals, not only domestically but also internationally.
Last season, Rostov made their debut in the EHF Champions League and Leslie's team impressed everyone in the group games, taking 19 points from a possible 20 in the main round.
However, CSM Bucuresti ended that impressive run in the quarter-final, and then Rostov missed out on the Russian title following a sensational loss to Astrakhanochka in the final series.
With the signing of Dembele, Barbosa, Vyakhireva and Grigel in the summer, Rostov hoped to do better this season and declared that reaching the TIPPMIX EHF FINAL4 2017 was their goal. Yet the reality proved to be harsh.
They were drawn in Group C alongside Györi, Midtjylland and, notably, Bucuresti, in what was labeled as the 'Group of Death'. Rostov struggled with the pressure and had many exhausted players after the Olympic tournament, and ultimately did not survive the tough group.
Early elimination was a hard blow for the team who won just one group game and had to continue in the EHF Cup. They would do so without Leslie, whose contract was terminated by mutual consent.
Yet that was their only defeat in the group - under Bougeant, who tried to liberate his team physically and mentally, Rostov went on to win all four remaining games. They had no problems sealing a quarter-final berth, although a number of important players such as Sedoykina, Ilina, Bobrovnikova and Grigel were hit by injuries.
"I have been working with the team for a few weeks and already have heard quite a few negative words about my players. But we responded to criticism with a good game. Rostov is not dead, the team is alive and ready to fight," the French coach said after his team advanced to the next round.
Bougeant claims to be quite happy in his new Russian environment, and has a clear idea of what his side should be aiming for this season. "Our goals in the season are clear - to win both the EHF Cup and the Russian league. I think we have great prospects, but we need to be physically and mentally strong," says Bougeant, who had previously coached Le Havre, Fleury les Aubrais and the Senegal women's national team.
"When a new coach comes in the middle of the season, it's very important to create a good contact with him and to build up normal relationships. We feel that the team has already made some progress. We have no margin for error this season, we were eliminated from the Champions League so we have to focus on other tournaments", says Rostov's left back Anna Sen.
The team certainly have the potential to grab both titles. In the domestic championship, Rostov have not dropped points in 16 games and are leaders by a big margin. In the EHF Cup, they seem to be on the right track as well - but now the knockout games are going to decide everything.
TEXT: Sergey Nikolaev / ap
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