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EHF Champions League

Gjekstad: “Not here just to take part”

EHF / Chris O'Reilly

After guiding Vipers Kristiansand through a truly unique and winding road to the DELO EHF FINAL4, Ole Gustav Gjekstad could be forgiven for considering this season a job well done.

But this job is far from complete for the Norwegian coach, who heads into his second final weekend with the club feeling like they are ready to achieve something.

“The team is feeling good. In comparison to 2019, we have a lot more experience within the squad and we feel ready to compete.”

With no domestic league action for the majority of the season and two home matches out of 15 in the Champions League, Kristiansand have received plenty of plaudits for fighting their way to Budapest.

During an 11-day trip around Europe with five matches to conclude the group phase, three defeats left them with a tricky path in the knockout rounds.

After coming out on right side of a goal glut in Denmark against Odense, Vipers were back to full strength and showed as much in a masterclass in Russia against Rostov-Don, encounters which taught Gjekstad something new about the group of players he works with.

“I am very impressed with what the players achieved, they displayed just how resilient they were. I think earlier in the season, it did not look likely that we would make it to the FINAL4, so it is incredibly rewarding.”

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Vipers have enjoyed an impressive rise through Europe’s ranks since the Gjekstad’s arrival in 2018, an arrival which surprised quite a few after he stepped away from the sport in 2015 to work in insurance.

“When I left Larvik in 2015, I had no intention of coaching at this level again, I thought that was it. But things changed after three years working in insurance and with the opportunity to work on this project with Kristiansand.

“A good project was the attraction for me, and the club has done a great job in growing, improving and developing a squad.

“We have a really good setup and a strong squad, which makes for high-quality training and competition within the team, an important aspect for us in our circumstances.”

After this weekend’s event, changes are afoot for the club with Norwegian internationals Henny Reistad, Malin Aune and Emilie Hegh Arntzen moving abroad, while established international stars such as Bella Gulldén and Nerea Pena are among the players joining, signalling a new chapter in the club’s development.

“There will definitely be some changes. It is exciting to be attracting international talent like that, although it is sad to lose some players.

“It will be a more international team and we will have to change the team language from Norwegian to English. With Nerea and Bella coming, we will have a lot more playmakers in the team, so the playing style will change a bit as well.”

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Vipers come into this weekend as something of a dark horse. As the only team to reach the event from group A, they have not faced the other contenders for the crown this season.

CSKA await in a semi-final clash which both sides will feel is very winnable. The battle of wits between Gjekstad and the Russian club’s recently appointed head coach Olga Akopian is seen as a key aspect of the game.

“Olga’s influence on the team is clear to see and there have been some changes in CSKA since she took over from Jan Leslie.

“There have been quite a few changes in their defensive play and they were very impressive in the Russian league finals, where they beat Rostov. They are also very fast and move well in attack, particularly Darya Dmitrieva and Ekaterina Ilina.”

Gjekstad’s work this season had not gone unnoticed among his fellow coaches, with seven of them selecting him as the standout coach this season in the All-star Team nominations.

“It is certainly nice to be recognised by my fellow coaches in this way. I think it speaks a lot for the team’s good season and it is recognition not just for me but for all of the people working alongside me, helping to bring us to this point.”

I am very impressed with what the players achieved, they displayed just how resilient they were. I think earlier in the season, it did not look likely that we would make it to the EHF FINAL4, so it is incredibly rewarding.
Ole Gustav Gjekstad
Vipers Kristiansand head coach

Individual recognition aside, it is all about the club’s achievements for the Norwegian coach, who has won a bronze medal in Budapest with Vipers in 2019 and a silver with Larvik in 2015. Which special characteristics of his team need to shine through to make that breakthrough and claim gold?

“The physical side of our game is going to be vital, showing our physical strength and speed over the full two matches. Although we have prepared very well, we should not get too hung up on tactics, rather focusing on doing the basic things very well.

“My focus has been on the semi-final against CSKA but our other coaches have done a lot of good work to make sure we are prepared for Brest and Györ as well, whoever we face.

“The mentality is also important. Two years ago, we arrived in Budapest and were happy to have come this far, to participate, so we were unable to really challenge Györ. This time around, we are not here just to take part.”

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