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EHF Champions League

Seven conclusions after an unprecedented group phase

EHF / Adrian Costeiu

There was drama, a huge number of amazing comebacks, unexpected results and collapse of favourites in the 102 games played this season in the group phase of the DELO EHF Champions League.

With all teams progressing to the play-offs, we pinpoint the best of the best, highlight some superb performances and also look at the future of the competition in a wrap-up of the first stage.

The DELO EHF Champions League takes a break for three weeks, but the round of 16 will be more interesting than ever, with four exciting double headers that will decide the best eight teams in Europe this season.

Group winners Györ and Rostov-Don look to be favourites against SG BBM Bietigheim and Podravka Vegeta, as do Metz Handball and CSKA, who will face Dortmund and RK Krim Mercator, respectively.

The play-offs also feature a 100 per cent Romanian clash between CSM Bucuresti and SCM Ramnicu Valcea. An all-Scandinavian pairing pits Vipers Kristiansand against Odense Handbold, as another Danish side, Team Esbjerg, face Brest Bretagne Handball.

A history-laden clash between FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria and Buducnost finishes off the play-offs card.

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Another milestone for Györ

Seven of the 16 teams that took part in this DELO EHF Champions League group phase have not even played 51 games in the European premium competition, so to see that one team has been undefeated for that many matches is more than staggering. But Györ did exactly that over the past three years – they have not conceded any loss since January 2018, when they were defeated by CSM in the main round.

Players have come and gone and the coach changed, but Györ remain on an unprecedented run in the DELO EHF Champions League. Over the past three years, the Hungarian powerhouse won 43 games and drew eight, playing to their strengths and winning plaudits by shapeshifting when needed, both in attack and defence.

This summer will be an important one, with Anita Görbicz ending her career and Eduarda Amorim leaving for Rostov-Don – but until that moment, Györ eye another trophy, which would be their sixth in the last eight years.

This season, the Hungarian champions won 10 games and drew another four on their way to first place in group B. They look to be strong favourites against SG BBM Bietigheim in the play-offs. Provided they win, they will meet either FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria or Buducnost in the quarter-finals, with another DELO EHF FINAL4 berth in sight for Gabor Danyi’s side.

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The season’s dominant attacking side? Györ strike again

Györ once again had the most efficient attack in the competition. The Hungarian side scored 457 goals in 14 games this season, for an average of 32.6 goals per match – a small uptick from last season’s 32.5 goals-per-game average, achieved in 12 matches.

Norwegian left back Veronica Kristiansen (65 goals) and MVP of the EHF EURO 2020 Estelle Nze Minko (64 goals) led the way for the Hungarian side, individually placing sixth and ninth on the DELO EHF Champions League 2020/21 top goal scorer standings at the end of the group phase.

Despite losing three games and drawing another five, Brest are still one of the most effective attacks in the competition, scoring at an average of 29.5 goals per game. Brest also boast the top scorer in the competition: Slovenian right back Ana Gros, who tallies 87 goals after the group phase.

Another French side, Metz Handball, complete the most efficient attack podium for the season’s group phase, with an average of 29.15 goals per game scored.

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Gros leads the standings; Neagu has best average

An unusual season made the top goal scorer standings one to watch closely, as several players missed games due to injuries or match cancellations. After the group phase, Ana Gros is the top scorer of the DELO EHF Champions League, with 87 goals.

Gros is followed by Romanian left back Cristina Neagu, who scored 76 goals, and Podravka back Dejana Milosavlevic, with 75.

Gros played 13 games, scoring 6.6 goals on average. However, no player was more efficient than Neagu. The 32-year-old left back only played nine games this season but scored an average of 8.44 goals across those she did play, having five games with at least 10 goals scored.

Neagu, who has clinched the DELO EHF Champions League top scorer crown twice, is an overpowering presence in CSM’s attack and could bridge the gap provided the Romanian side win against SCM Ramnicu Valcea in the play-offs.

Milosavljevic, a 25-year-old back, had the season of her life in the premium European competition, scoring at an average of 6.8 goals per game. Dutch left back Lois Abbingh (70 goals at 5.38 average per game) and Montenegrin right wing Jovanka Radicevic (66 goals at 5.5 per game) round out the top five of the group phase.

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Goals, goals and more goals

The Covid-19 pandemic and bad weather in February saw 10 games rendered unable to be played, with teams being awarded 10:0 wins. However, the 102 remaining games produced 5,604 goals, with an average of 54.94 scored per game.

It is the second-highest average of goals scored in the history of the competition, just behind last season, when the participating teams combined for an average of 55.27 scored per game. However, the improvement in the average of goals scored per game in the last six years is clear, with the 2014/15 season producing an average of 51.99 goals per game.

Three of the highest scoring games were in group B, with Györ and Podravka Vegeta combining for 71 goals (43:28 win for Györ), followed closely by the tie between Dortmund and Brest (70 goals; final score 41:29 for Brest), with Györ featuring again in third place thanks to their match against SCM Ramnicu Valcea (69 goals; 38:31 win for Györ).

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Young guns blossom despite tough season

Watching young players blossom and fulfil their potential is always a must in the DELO EHF Champions League – and this season saw some exciting performances.

With an eye on their future and their ambitions rekindled for the next season, RK Krim Mercator boast a young core, with Montenegrin playmaker Matea Pletikosic and EHF EURO 2020 silver medallist Oceane Sercien Ugolin spearheading their challenge.

Pletikosic scored Krim’s 7,000th goal in the DELO EHF Champions League this weekend and scored 20 goals in the last two games of the group phase, while Sercien is Krim’s top scorer, with 59 goals. The two backs combined for 110 of the Slovenian side’s 325 goals this season.

But no player under 23 years of age scored more than Katrin Klujber. The superb Hungarian right back scored 63 goals in 11 games for FTC this season, to finish the group phase 10th on the top goal scorer standings. Still only 21 years old, Klujber has scored 201 goals in three seasons in the DELO EHF Champions League and has a big future ahead.

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A new dawn for Russian handball?

Russia, Hungary, Romania, Denmark, France and Germany each had two teams in the DELO EHF Champions League group phase this season, but no country found more success than Russia. While Rostov-Don won group A after securing 10 wins, rookies CSKA pressured Györ until the last matchday, ultimately settling for second place after conceding a 31:24 loss against the Hungarian powerhouse.

The Russian sides share some similarities. Both have Scandinavian coaches – Rostov named Swedish ace Per Johansson before the start of the competition, while CSKA count on Danish coach Jan Leslie. Both team’s cores are formed by Russian players, with CSKA sending seven players for the Russia side at the EHF EURO 2020, while Rostov had six, with key backs Anna Vyakhireva and Anna Sen missing due to injury. Moreover, each of the Russian club teams has a Brazilian goalkeeper and a Swedish line player in their roster.

Should they progress, Rostov and CSKA would only meet in the DELO EHF FINAL4 in Budapest. The last time two Russian teams were among the top four sides in the competition was in the 2007/08 season, when HC Zvezda won the trophy and Lada were eliminated in the semi-finals – but two teams from Russia never progressed to the final act in Budapest in the same season.

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Mouthwatering 100 per cent Romanian clash headlines play-offs

Speaking of club success from one country, Romania will see one of their teams eliminated by the other due to the direct play-off between CSM Bucuresti and SCM Ramnicu Valcea.

When the season started, the two Romanian sides featured in the DELO EHF Champions League looked to be heading for different scenarios. CSM, who won the top-flight trophy in the 2015/16 season, were relishing the chance to fight for the big title once again, while Valcea were happy with progression to the round of 16.

But after CSM’s third-place finish in group A and Valcea securing sixth in group B, the two teams are on a collision course. Their rivalry will be set alight in a crucial double header regarding their future in the competition.

Valcea have always played with newfound ambition against the more experienced and star-studded rivals at CSM, taking four wins in the seven mutual games played over the last three years. Snatching a domestic title and a Romanian Cup were huge sources of pride for Valcea, while CSM failed to win more than a Romanian Cup in the last two seasons.

Despite not being able to rely on their superb fans, Valcea will definitely come with guns blazing against CSM. The motivation will be through the roof for Florentin Pera’s side – a team that did not have any player for the Romania team for the EHF EURO 2020.

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