20191110 Celje Novak
EHF Champions League

Few changes as young Celje aim for play-offs

EHF / Danijela Lemaić

RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko are one of the well-known participants in the top European competition, and raised the trophy back in 2003/04. Since then, a lot has changed, mainly in the team roster and expectations.

Celje’s handball philosophy is the only thing that remains the same after almost a decade: A rejuvenated team stepping into the shoes of experienced players, gaining experience with every new match, looking towards a bright future and reaching the season’s goals. And for Celje, the approach seems to be working.

Main facts

  • the 2004 champions are entering their 26th Champions League season
  • last season, they won the domestic title for the seventh season in a row and 24th time overall
  • in 2019/20, Celje finally advanced from the Champions League group phase again for the first time in six seasons
  • no significant changes in the roster for 2020/21
  • Celje remain one of the youngest teams in the Champions League
  • Tomaz Ocvirk, former player for Celje, is heading into his third season as a coach

Most important question: Can Celje repeat last season’s success and pass the group phase?

The 2019/20 season was a good one for the Slovenian champions. In the Champions League, Celje managed to reach the Last 16 for the first time since 2014.

This year, they want to continue in the same direction. “We want to play an important role in the Champions League. We are paving the way in the field of sustainable development, social responsibility and finding new opportunities to connect with fans and society. That is important, especially in a time when competition is changing. We believe we all have a bright future ahead of us and that we will be part of the Champions League for many years to come,” says club manager Rok Plankelj.

Ocvirk can continue with the great work he has done with the young team. The Slovenian champions will fight hard against all their opponents. “All matches will be hard. If you ask me, I can’t wait to play against Kiel after quite some time,” says team captain David Razgor.

This season, Celje will meet Barça, Telekom Veszprém, THW Kiel, Aalborg Handbold, HBC Nantes, HC Motor and HC PPD Zagreb. The first match is scheduled for 16 September against Aalborg in the famous Zlatorog Arena.

Under the spotlight: Josip Sarac

Young Croatian star Josip Sarac plays an important role for Celje. The 22-year-old left back came from Izvidjac Ljubuski in 2018 after a turbulent period. His path was not easy.

Playing the SEHA League with his first top-level club secured him an invitation to the national team. The future looked promising, but his health had different plans. Mononucleosis took him away from training for eight months. During that difficult time with no club, Celje was there for him.

“At the end of my contract with Ljubuski I had to make a tough decision. It was not an easy period for me. I chose Celje and I’m satisfied with it. After having health issues, Celje brought me back to life. I’m happy here and thankful. This is a great surrounding for a young player,” says Sarac.

Sarac has rewarded Celje’s trust with excellent games. In the 2019/20 season, he was the club’s top scorer in the Champions League, netting 62 times. On top of that, he won the silver medal with Croatia at the EHF EURO 2020. And he is still only 22.

How they rate themselves

In the past there were big roster changes. This year there were no big turnarounds. One of the youngest teams in the competition will try the reach at least the play-offs in the new edition of the EHF Champions League.

“There are no big changes in the team, and I believe we can be even better this season,” says club manager Plankelj.

Celje are motivated to reach their seasons’ objective, especially in the challenging times during the global pandemic. Team captain Razgor says: “Our biggest wish is that the season goes according to the plans. We want to get into the elimination round, same as in the previous season. I believe we can do it. Our hard work always pays off.”

Did you know?

Celje had an interesting start to their new seasons’ preparations, spending three days in the wild. The young team spent nearly 50 hours in the forest located in the Notranjska region of Slovenia with nature survival expert Brane Cervek.

Sleeping in the wild under the tress, searching for food, learning to start a fire in different ways, descending cliffs and using other survival techniques in nature have shown the true meaning of team spirit. The players were thrilled and excited to try something new ahead of the most interesting season so far.

What the numbers say

Celje have been one of the youngest Champions League teams for several years in a row. Last season, their average age was 21.98. This year, they will be slightly older, with an average of 22.54. That is quite impressive for a team heading into their 26th season in the elite competition with only six foreigners in the roster: Filip Ivic, Veron Nacinovic, Josip Sarac (CRO), Miljan Vujovic, Radojica Cepic and Arsenije Dragasevic (MNE)

Newcomers and left the club

Newcomers: Filip Ivic (VfL Gummersbach), Veron Nacinovic (Zamet), Tadej Mazej (Gorenje Velenje), Radojica Cepic (Rudar Plevija), Arsenije Dragasevic (Rudar Plevija), Tim Cokan (Celje youth team)

Left the club: Klemen Ferlin (Erlangen), Domen Makuc (Barça), Diogo Silva (Porto), Stefan Zabic (loan to Maribor), Filip Rakita (loan to Maribor)

Past achievements

- EHF Champions League:

Participations (including 2020/21 season): 26
Winners (1): 2003/04
Semi-final (6): 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 1999/00, 2000/01, 2004/05
Quarter-final (2): 2001/02, 2005/06
Last 16 (5): 1995/96, 2006/07, 2012/13, 2013/14, 2019/20
Main round (2): 2007/08, 2008/09
Group phase (8): 1993/94, 1994/95, 2010/11, 2014/15, 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19
Qualification (1): 2009/10

- Other:

Slovenian league: 24 titles (1992-2001, 2003-2008, 2010, 2014-2020)
Slovenian Cup: 21 titles (1992-2001, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012-2018)
Slovenian Super Cup: 7 titles (2007, 2010, 2014-2017, 2019)

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