Panjtar proud of Velenje’s achievements but still dreams big
Gorenje Velenje have brought back the spotlight on Slovenian club handball in European competition. Last season, the Slovenian club returned to the domestic throne after eight years, beating RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko to the Slovenian league title for the first time since 2012/13.
Zoran Jovicic’s team announced an international comeback, reaching the semi-final of the EHF European Cup Men 2020/21 where they narrowly went down against eventual champions AEK Athens HC. This season, they stepped up to the EHF European League and surprised many by reaching the quarter-finals.
The squad mixed with experienced players and young talents managed to finish fourth in a tough group B, qualifying for the Last 16. That set up a clash with group D winners USAM Nimes Gard and they pulled off a shock 59:57 victory on aggregate.
A seven-goal win in Velenje was decisive in that round and it is something Slovenian champions are hoping to repeat against Benfica this evening at 18:45 CEST, live on EHFTV. The Portuguese team won the first leg 36:29 after a comeback in the second half, leaving Velenje with a mountain to climb at home.
Gorenje Velenje’s goalkeeper Aljaz Panjtar is proud of his team's achievements so far and believes his team can perform another miracle.
“It is going to be tough against Benfica, but we already proved this season that we can play against strong teams with success. We won over Nimes by seven and Nexe by eight, that is why we believe that on our home court we can win against Benfica too if we do everything right,” says Panjtar
“Handball has seen big comebacks already”
Velenje had a good start in Benfica, holding a lead until the 36th minute of the match with Panjtar making ten saves. However, they could not keep up with the home team’s rhythm and strong back court shooters.
“We lost by too many goals in the first match, but the result does not reflect our good performance. In the rematch, we have to have stronger defence, especially watching their play with the line player. Benfica is a physically strong team, that is why our defence must be on the top level.
“In offence, we need to have more discipline and maintain a high level of play throughout the 60 minutes.”
Benfica’s Petar Djordjic and Lazar Kukic scored a combined 17 of the 36 goals, while line players Paulo Moreno and Rogerio Moraes added another eight without a shot missed.
Velenje’s defence has to find a solution on how to stop Benfica’s powerful attack. Panjtar is well aware of their opponents' stronghold and emphasised what will be the key to victory.
“Our key this whole season was strong defence and goals scored from fast breaks. Benfica has a great roster, a few players that stand out and we have to give our best to make their job as hard as possible, to score fewer goals in the second leg.”
In domestic competition, Velenje have lost their chances to raise the trophy again. However, they can still finish second behind Celje Pivovarna Lasko, and continue the rise of the club. With three more matches to play after EHF European League Men quarter-finals and still dreaming of reaching the EHF Finals, Velenje have plenty to be proud of this season.
“In the domestic championship, we lost too many points and we cannot defend the title. On the other hand, we have reached the European League quarter-finals, a success that not a lot of people believed in at the beginning of the season. I do not remember the last time a Slovenian club played European matches in May,” says Panjtar
Aljaž Panjtar, together with Emir Taletovic, is the base of Velenje’s defence. In 11 matches he maintains an almost 30 per cent save efficiency with 89 saves in total. If Panjtar repeats his good day, Velenje can hope of staying a little bit longer in Europe’s second tier.
Nevertheless, Panjtar concluded: ’’We are extremely proud of what we have achieved this season no matter the outcome on Tuesday.’’