“We have to be at our very best”
When Andreas Nilsson signed for Telekom Veszprém in 2014, he would not have thought he would still be playing for the Hungarian powerhouse seven years later.
Yet here he is, the longest-standing Veszprém player, alongside centre back Mate Lekai and right wing Gasper Marguc, in another challenging season for the Hungarian champions.
The towering line player is crucial to his team this season, having scored 63 goals, his best output in the EHF Champions League by a country mile.
Only Serbian centre back Peter Nenadic scored more than Nilsson, therefore Nilsson’s key input could prove decisive for Veszprém once again on Thursday, when they will be eyeing their seventh EHF FINAL4 berth in eight years.
Then came along the tough loss in the first leg of the quarter-final against Nantes, 32:28, leaving them with a mountain to climb.
“We have been here in the past, so we are not afraid. We should be happy that there were only four goals, because we were not really up to the challenge in the first leg,” says Nilsson, who scored six times in the 32:28 loss.
What happened in the first leg?
“Well, we were a bit surprised by Nantes. They are a young team, yet they still have some experienced players, who can play good games. We were not at our best and know we must mount an important comeback.
“But now, we really have to be at our very best to proceed to Cologne,” says the Swedish line player.
Lessons to be learnt
Nilsson was one of the line players to look for a decade ago, winning the EHF Champions League Men with Hamburg in the 2012/13 season, when he scored 18 goals for the German side.
When Hamburg folded, Veszprém came along and it was plain sailing for Nilsson ever since.
“I have been here seven years already and I must say it feels like my second home. It is surely different than Sweden, I miss some friends, but I have my family here with me, so everything is nice and I love living in Veszprém,” says Nilsson.
Pressed if he learnt Hungarian in his stint at Veszprém, Nilsson smiles.
“No, I know just a bit to get on, but we are an international team, so English is spoken and everything is fine,” says the Swedish line player.
Moderate success in handball also helped, with Nilsson winning four Hungarian titles, five Hungarian Cups and three editions of the SEHA League with Telekom Veszprém in the past seven years.
Yet the holy grail still is the EHF Champions League, which has eluded them in every season Nilsson played for the Hungarian side.
In the past seven years, Veszprém missed out on the EHF FINAL4 only once, in the 2017/18 season, when Nantes, their opponents in this year’s quarter-finals, lost the final against Montpellier.
There have been painful losses, like the one against Lomza Vive Kielce, in the 2015/16 season, when Veszprém led by as many as nine goals in the 45th minute, only to concede the trophy at penalties, after a 39:38 loss.
Nilsson scored six goals in that game, converting all his shots, but still it was not enough. He still finds it hard to talk about that loss, which will probably haunt him, and his former teammates, throughout their careers.
“It was the most painful loss in my career and we all learnt from it. It means that we still have to fight hard when we win and try better when we are losing,” says Nilsson.
Whether this will apply or not for the second leg in the quarter-final against Nantes, it is yet to be seen. But knowing Nilsson and Veszprém’s mentality, there will definitely be an attempted comeback.
With a star-studded line-up, mixing young talent and experienced players, Veszprém are still poised to earn a berth for Cologne come June, therefore everything will be in play when the second leg throws off in Hungary on Thursday.
“We did not show up in the first leg according to our standards, therefore we need to be better here. And we will get a bit of help,” adds the 30-year-old line player.
Fans’ help could prove crucial
The help he mentions is the hearty fans who filled up Veszprém’s arena game after game prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the first time in more than a year, they will be back at a game, as the rules were relaxed in Hungary. The arena will still not be full, yet even a handful of hearty fans could lift the Hungarian side when they need it most.
“Of course it will be helpful because we missed them and they can really impact a game when called for. It will be one more ace up our sleeve and we can qualify with their help,” says Nilsson.
Through thick and thin, the loyal Veszprém fans have been there for the team and the narrative for their comeback could not have been better.
Down by four, their team needs a big win against Nantes to keep their hopes for the first EHF Champions League trophy.
“We can do it, right? We have shown it time and time again,” concluded Nilsson.
Anything else could be seen as a failure for a team that is still chasing that elusive trophy. And for that win, they will need Nilsson to be at his best as he has been throughout the whole season.