PREVIEW: The last nine European qualifiers for the Women's World Championship 2017 in Germany will be known over the next two weeks, as the play-offs start on Friday
18 European teams competing for the last World Championship tickets
18 countries are in the race for the last tickets for the Women's World Championship 2017 in Germany this December.
Hosts Germany have qualified automatically, and reigning world and European champions Norway have also booked their spot. Netherlands, France and Denmark are the other European nations who have already qualified, as they finished second, third and fourth respectively at the EHF EURO 2016 in Sweden.
This leave nine European spots for 18 nations to compete for in the coming two weeks, with the first legs of the play-offs taking place on Friday and Saturday this week.
Montenegro vs Belarus, Friday 9 June 19:00 local time
Montenegro are currently building a new team for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
However, this does not mean that national coach Dragan Adzic and his team do not want success before that, and qualifying for the World Championship might be a 'must' for a nation that has such proud traditions in women's handball.
Belarus have not qualified for a World Championship since 1999, when the event was held in Denmark and Norway. Their latest appearance at a major tournament was the EHF EURO 2008 in FYR Macedonia.
The Belarusian team will undoubtedly need a very good result in the SC Topolica in Bar, Montenegro, on Friday evening to keep theirs hopes alive, ahead of the home game next Thursday.
Russia vs Poland, Friday 9 June. 19:00 local time
Russia have a proud history in women's handball, but after winning the Olympic gold in Rio last summer Evegenii Trefilov's troops were not able to copy the success at the EHF EURO in Sweden back in December.
Therefore, the Russians have to go through qualification to reach the final tournament in Germany. However, their two upcoming matches against Poland could be about more than just qualification, even though qualifying for the World Championship is essential to Russia.
The defeat against Poland in the quarter-final of the World Championship 2015 in Denmark will undoubtedly still be hurting Russia, so some form of revenge would be more than welcome.
For Poland, coach Leszek Krowicki has followed in the large footsteps of Dane Kim Rasmussen, and will have to try and raise the Polish team to their former level. They were eliminated from the EHF EURO 2016 at the preliminary round.
Ukraine vs Spain, Friday 9 June, 19:00 local time
Ukraine have not been to a World Championship since 2007, while their latest major tournament appearance was at the EHF EURO 2014 in Hungary and Croatia.
This time there is still a big question mark hanging over the Ukranians, as Spain will present a tough hurdle that they must overcome.
For Spain, the World Championship 2015 and last year's European Championship may have been disappointing experiences, but there is no doubt that the team, under new coach Carlos Viver, will be eager to improve and proceed to the final tournament in Germany.
Romania vs Austria, Friday 9 June, 20:00 local time
Winning bronze at the last World Championship and finishing fifth at the European Championship last year, Romania appear to be the top team among the 18 teams in the play-offs.
According to one of the team's key players, left back Cristina Neagu, there is no doubt at all that Romania should qualify. "Austria are not what they once were, and those are two matches we should certainly be able to win,” said Cristina Neagu.
For the Austrians, coach Herbert Müller is happy about a successful training camp in Rome, where Italy were defeated 29:21 and 33:17 in two test matches.
“It was a very, very successful training camp. The team is working together very well, and they were fighting till they dropped," Müller told the Austrian Handball Federation's website.
Italy vs Serbia, Saturday 10 June, 16:30 local time
There is no doubt that Serbia are clear favourites for this game.
They did very well at the European Championship, and the return of Andrea Lekic ought to have reinforced their team even further.
Despite this, Italy's coach has hopes of making history in Padova on Saturday afternoon.
“We will obviously give everything we have got, even though we have some injuries. Hopefully we achieve a historic result.
“I expect a big crowd, who will hopefully be our eighth woman,” Italy's national coach Michael Niederwieser told his federation's website.
Hungary vs Slovakia, Saturday 10 June, 17:00 local time
The Hungarians did not have much success at the European Championship, but this was mainly due to injuries.
Regardless, Hungary still have big expectations of their team, who are guided by successful Danish coach Kim Rasmussen.
A 31:21 win in a test match against Romania has obviously increased the optimism even further.
“It was probably our best game in my nine months as national coach in Hungary. Once again, we are severely hit by injury though.
“I am missing no less than 10 players, including all three right backs. Still, we have to be strong enough to defeat Slovakia over 120 minutes,” Kim Rasmussen tells eurohandball.com.
Slovakia have only been at one World Championship so far - back in 1995 - and they will have a hard time getting there again this year.
Croatia vs Slovenia, Saturday 10 June 18.00 local time
This local derby could turn into a thriller, and might be the closest of all the nine encounters.
Both teams were eliminated from the European Championship in Sweden at the preliminary round, but there is no doubt that they both possess much more potential. It is hard to predict which of those two nations will not make it to Germany in December, although missing Andrea Penezic will inevitably handicap the Croatians.
“Of course, we are going to miss Andrea, but that is a situation we cannot change. It will be tough against Slovenia who have some great players who have done well in the (Women's EHF) Champions League, but we will try to focus on our own strengths,” said national coach Goran Mrden.
Czech Republic vs Turkey, Saturday 10 June, 18:30 local time
The Czechs managed to perform well at EHF EURO 2016, where they almost matched Russia and Romania in the group stage before eventually suffering narrow defeats against both.
Turkey are still waiting for their first appearance at a major tournament, but Czech Republic coach Jan Basny is a bit concerned.
“The Turkish team has been able to prepare for nearly a month, as almost all their players play in the Turkish league. They have played two tournaments, and especially the second one was successful for them.
“I have recordings of their matches, and those indicate that they may not be as easy an opponent as some tend to think,” Jan Basny told the Czech federation's website.
FYR Macedonia vs Sweden, Saturday 10 June, 20:30 local time
Macedonia handball fans were dancing in the streets of Skopje on Tuesday, as they celebrated the home coming of VELUX EHF Champions League winners HC Vardar.
On Saturday night their female national team will need all that support in the SRC Hale, when Sweden are visiting for the first leg of this encounter.
Macedonia's recent form has not been impressive, losing 35:29 against Russia, winning 31:24 against Lithuania and losing 38:29 to Turkey in a tournament in Antalya.
According to one of Sweden's key players, Nathalie Hagman, there is no doubt that her team are favourites.
“Sweden belong at the World Championship. To get there, we have to eliminate Macedonia, and I definitely think they are a team we should be able to defeat over two matches," Hagman told told ehf-euro.com.
TEXT: Peter Bruun / ap / ts
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