ELIMINATION ROUND PREVIEW: Having avoided an all-French clash, Montpellier and Nantes travel to Zaporozhye and La Rioja respectively in the first leg of the Group C+D play-offs this weekend.
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French favourites seek glory in Ukraine and Spain
Four teams from Groups C and D will cross paths in the contest for two spots in the Last 16 of the VELUX EHF Champions League. The most experienced team, Montpellier, visit Zaporozhye, while La Rioja host in-form Nantes.
• Montpellier want to improve their negative record in away matches
• Zaporozhye look to repeat last year's play-off success when they eliminated La Rioja
• Nantes have reached the play-offs in what is only their debut season
• La Rioja want to prove the critics wrong after their drop in form in 2017
ELIMINATION ROUND C+D:
HC Motor Zaporozhye (UKR) vs Montpellier HB (FRA)
Saturday, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
For the third time in as many years, Montpellier are vying for a Last 16 place in the VELUX EHF Champions League. The French side achieved the feat last year after placing sixth in Group B.
It was not a walk in the park for Patrice Canayer's side this season but with a clean sweep on their home court, Montpellier took the lead early and never looked back.
However, they had problems in their away games and lost at La Rioja and Elverum.
Zaporozhye have been in the Last 16 twice in the last three seasons. They have the experience of playing a play-off from last season, when they eliminated La Rioja 70:67 on aggregate.
"We know what a play-off game means and this is not like the group phase, where we picked off late and managed to come back. There is little room for error right now," Motor coach Nikolay Stepanets said.
Motor were one of the in-form teams in December, when the Ukrainian side had a six-game winning streak to secure second place in Group D.
But the lack of top-notch games after the World Championship break could prove costly for Motor. So far, they have played only one European game in 2017.
"I have seen how Montpellier play right now and I was truly impressed how they played against PSG when they won in the French Cup," Stepanets said. "The defence must be at its best and our goalkeepers will have to play very good. Otherwise we have almost no chance."
Motor will miss left back Dmytro Gunko, while line player Gleb Kalarash, who scored 37 goals in the group phase, is doubtful after a shoulder injury.
However, Montpellier's woes are even bigger. Vid Kavticnik, the experienced Slovenian back, is out for the season with a knee injury, while right wing Theophile Causse has also been sidelined for a month.
On the other hand, Diego Simonet and Aymen Toumi are back in the squad for Montpellier, which lost 33:30 to Chambery on Wednesday.
Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) vs HBC Nantes (FRA)
Sunday, 20:00 hrs local time, live on ehtv.com
HBC Nantes will add another chapter to their fairy-tale debut season in the VELUX EHF Champions League when they enter the knockout round on Sunday.
Even for a team that made it to the EHF Cup Final twice (in 2013 and 2016), Nantes’ Group D run has been amazing for a newcomer to the competition.
They lost only once, and have now been unbeaten since 19 November while still competing for four titles. They trail PSG by just one point in the French league and have impressed in both the French Cup and league cup competitions.
The team around coach Thierry Anti are flying high.
Nantes were the most scoring team in Group D with 312 goals in 10 matches. Centre back Nicolas Claire led the stats with 46 goals.
La Rioja have bad memories of the elimination round last season, when they fell short twice to Zaporozhye. They have avoided the same opponent this time but Nantes are likely of the same quality.
The Spanish side made the Last 16 two seasons ago before being eliminated by Veszprém. This time, “proceeding to the Last 16 would be a major success for us,” coach and manager Jesús Javier González Fernández said at the start of the season.
The Logrono-based team lost three of their last four Champions League matches, and they have only won two games in all competitions in 2017.
La Rioja have no room for panic ahead of the clash with Nantes. Goalkeeper Richard Kappelin needs to step up once again, while Miguel Vigo Gerpe will be in the spotlight as the main playmaker.
Strong wing play by Albert Rocas is required as well as the back court quality from Haniel Langaro and Angel Cabello.
La Rioja and Nantes have never played each other before. While Nantes have the odds and the momentum on their side, La Rioja are traditionally a strong home side.
TEXT: Adrian Costeiu, Tomas Cuncik / ew