Kristianstad keen to progress from group of death
Following five straight seasons in the EHF Champions League, IFK Kristianstad have a whole new challenge on their hands in the European League as Ljubomir Vranjes’ men aim to re-establish themselves as Sweden’s top dogs while becoming a serious contender in Europe.
- World Championship finalist Espen Christensen and former IFK star Markus Olsson among new arrivals
- lost Valter Chrintz to Berlin shortly before the campaign began
- defeated Azoty-Pulawy by three goals on aggregate to progress
- first time out of the EHF Champions League in six seasons
The burning question: can ‘Ljubo’ rediscover European magic?
Since taking over as coach in early 2019, Ljubomir Vranjes has yet to enjoy much success with the club, but with a full season in charge now behind him, we are beginning to see his impact.
Kristianstad have enjoyed a perfect start to the season, with five wins in the Swedish league and two in European League qualification – the kind of consistency that will be crucial in the toughest group in town, featuring USAM Nimes Gard, C.S. Dinamo Bucuresti, TATRAN Presov, Füchse Berlin and Sporting CP.
There have been plenty of changes in the squad over the summer, including the late move of Valter Chrintz to Berlin, but Vranjes has brought in some serious quality in the form of Espen Christensen, Emil Frend Öfors and Markus Olsson.
Breaking through group B will be a tough task, however, few coaches in the competition know the ins and outs of a successful voyage as well as 2014 EHF Champions League winning coach Vranjes.
Although he is aware of the challenge ahead, captain Olafur Gudmundsson fancies a proper run in Europe.
“We always strive to get better and do better than last year and to be able to measure with the top teams of Europe is motivation enough,” says Gudmundsson.
“With a little luck we have a possibility to pass the group phase. We want to go through to the Last 16 and develop our game. It will be hard but it is our goal.”
Wise owl – Espen Christensen
The two-time World Championship finalist and EHF EURO 2020 bronze medallist is a wonderful addition to the squad, particularly after Kristianstad’s top two keepers retired this summer.
Joining from Minden, the 35-year-old is no stranger to this part of the world, having spent seven years in Lund. His energetic approach to goalkeeping fits the team’s style perfectly.
On-court leader – Olafur Gudmundsson
The Icelandic international bleeds orange at this stage, having spent seven seasons with the club, with a year in between spent at Hannover.
Gudmundsson is a solid all-round player, who can come up with big goals when needed most as well as doing the dirty work at both ends of the court.
Returning hero – Markus Olsson
He was there to help Kristianstad re-establish themselves as a top club in Sweden, with his final game in his last IFK adventure being their victory over Alingsas in the 2015 Swedish league final.
The left back went on to lead Skjern to an EHF Champions League quarter-final and spent the last two seasons in Toulouse, before returning, aged 30, to his former home. Olsson brings a new dimension to the team’s attack and is certain to thrive in the group phase.
A night to remember
In their first EHF Champions League campaign, IFK Kristianstad treated their passionate supporters to an evening that will long be remembered by all fans who attended on 22 October 2015.
Roared on by the fervent home crowd, dressed in orange, the Swedish champions pulled off a stunning upset by beating Rhein-Neckar Löwen 32:29.
After suffering four successive defeats, Kristianstad headed into the clash with only a forlorn hope of defying the odds. However, it was clear from the start that something extraordinary was on the cards, as the rampant home side raced to a 10:3 lead and never looked back.
Driven by Iranian sharpshooter Iman Jamali and Montenegrin goalkeeper Nebojsa Simic, who galvanised the home fans after every superb save, Kristianstad pressed on relentlessly and the goals poured in from all angles. Helped by Andreas Cederholm and Jerry Tollbring, the Swedes found gaps in Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s defence at will and carved out a deserved eight-goal advantage at half-time.
Leading 27:18 heading into the home straight, the hosts started to run out of steam and only then did the visitors show some of their true credentials, with Andy Schmid and Kim Ekhdal Du Rietz cutting the gap to 31:29 heading into the final minute.
The unstoppable Jamali, who finished with eight goals from nine shots, then put the icing on the cake for Kristianstad with a thunderbolt from 10 metres on the buzzer, sending the home fans wild.
It is a joy to look back at that Kristianstad side in those heady days for the club, with the likes of Nebojsa Simic, Kristian Björnsen, Christian O’Sullivan and Jerry Tollbring going on to do great things in the years to follow.
Arrivals and departures
Newcomers: Espen Christensen (GWD Minden), Gustaf Banke (HIF Karlskrona), Johan Nilsson (IFK Ystad), Emil Frend Öfors (HSG Wetzlar), Markus Olsson (FENIX Toulouse)
Left the club: Leo Larsson (retired), Richard Kappelin (retired), Viktor Hallén (Lugi Lund), Jihed Jaballah (TATRAN Presov), Valter Chrintz (Füchse Berlin), Simon Birkefeldt (Ribe Esbjerg), Philip Henningsson (HSG Wetzlar), Evon Mohlin (Amo HK), Hugo Svensson (Vinslöv)
EHF Champions League:
Last 16 (1): 2017/18
Group Phase (4): 2015/16, 2016/17, 2018/19, 2019/20
Group Phase: 2013/14
Swedish league: 8 titles (1941, 1948, 1952, 1953, 2015-18)