GROUP B PREVIEW: Vardar and Rhein-Neckar Löwen are jostling for the group’s top spot and an automatic quarter-final berth, the chasing pack below them want to finish third and the bottom three are seeking the last remaining spot in the knockout stages
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Down to the wire and everything to play for in the last round
The final round of the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase could not be filled with more drama, as all eight teams have something to play for in what has been a captivating group.
Rhein-Neckar Löwen are still hopeful of finishing top and thus snatching automatic qualification for the last eight, but Vardar are the firm favourites to stay in pole position.
At the other end of the table, Celje, Zagreb and Kristianstad are involved in a three-way dogfight for the last remaining Last 16 berth.
- Löwen must beat Szeged to keep top spot hopes alive
- Vardar will win the group if they beat Kristianstad at home
- Zagreb at home to Celje in a likely winner-takes-all clash
- Kielce out to make amends against Meshkov after patchy run
Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Wednesday, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Rhein-Neckar Löwen suffered a devastating defeat at Celje in the previous round which severely dented their hopes of finishing top of the group, but a win over Szeged in the final round could still see the German champions leapfrog Vardar into the driving seat.
With Vardar also suffering a shock defeat at Meshkov, Mannheim’s Lions still have an outside chance of snatching an automatic last-eight berth, provided that a win over their Hungarian rivals is coupled with Vardar’s home defeat by IFK Kristianstad.
Unlikely but not impossible, as the Swedish side desperately need a win in order to come out on top in a three-way battle with Zagreb and Celje for a sixth-place finish.
Szeged have mainly pride to play for in Frankfurt, as they have no chance of winning the group, but moving up the table could also yield somewhat easier opposition in the Last 16 as well as boost their confidence ahead of the knockout stages.
It’s hard to pick a winner as both teams have endured a slump in their recent outings, with Szeged winning only one of their last four games while Rhein-Neckar Löwen conceded an avalanche of goals at Celje after an unimpressive one-goal home win over Zagreb.
Home court advantage should play into the German side’s hands, but Szeged are quite capable of springing an upset which would allow them to at least stay fourth in the section.
The two teams have won three encounters each in their six meetings so far, with Szeged winning the most recent one 30:24 in November 2015 after a 30:24 defeat at Löwen three weeks earlier.
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO)
Thursday, 19:00 local time, live on ehfTV
The stage is set for an epic make-or-break clash between old rivals from the former Yugoslavia with so much at stake.
A recent surge in form has put Celje in a commanding position to finish sixth and therefore claim the last remaining Last 16 spot, as victory in the Zagreb Arena would guarantee their passage into the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.
A draw will also be enough for the Slovenian title holders provided that Kristianstad fail to beat Vardar, while even a defeat would see them through if the Swedish lose in FYR Macedonia.
Zagreb need to win by three goals or more to retain any hope of advancing, but their fate is not entirely in their own hands.
They will only progress if they do their bit and Kristianstad lose at Vardar, while any other combination of results would condemn the Croatian champions to an early exit.
Celje won the reverse fixture in the opening round 30:28 and having produced a pair of massive shocks recently by beating defending champions Kielce and then Rhein-Neckar Löwen at home, they will be brimming with confidence heading into the decisive clash against their neighbours.
The trio of Borut Mackovsek, Blaz Janc and Miha Zarabec fired on all cylinders in the impressive win against Löwen, combining for 25 goals while Ziga Mlakar added six to underline Celje’s potent attack.
Zagreb’s main concern will be to contain the lethal quartet and reduce Celje’s lightning fast breaks down to a minimum, but that will be easier said than done against a youthful and inspired Slovenian side.
The Croatian champions, on the other hand, will rely on their physical defence while hoping that prolific backs Stipe Mandalinic and Domagoj Pavlovic can manage more than a mere five goals they mustered together in a 26:21 defeat at Szeged in the previous round.
KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Saturday, 16:00 local time, live on ehfTV
A crushing 29:25 defeat at Kristianstad in the last round means that reigning European club champions Kielce can no longer finish top of the group, which they have found tougher to negotiate than anyone might have expected.
However, they will see victory in their match against Meshkov as imperative to restore the kind of momentum which drove the Polish giants to their maiden VELUX EHF Champions League title last season.
With their defending leaving something to be desired and the attack not quite as impressive as last term, Kielce have suffered five defeats in 13 games and Brest will duly try to stage an upset which could see them climb up to third in the section.
The side from Belarus showed their ability in no uncertain terms last weekend, when they produced an effervescent performance in a 30:26 home win over group leaders Vardar.
Dainis Kristopans, Vladislav Ostroushko and Artsiom Kulak scored 23 goals between against the Macedonian champions, while goalkeeper Ivan Pesic also shone as he thwarted Vardar’s forwards with a barrage of superb saves.
In contrast, Kielce kept misfiring at IFK with their striking pins enduring a difficult afternoon. Julen Aguinagalde, Karol Bielecki, Dean Bombac and Uros Zorman netted only nine goals between them, as the Polish side missed four penalties that ultimately cost them the chance to secure automatic qualification for the Last 16.
Kielce are still the firm favourites though, having won both games against Meshkov in their only two meetings so far. A 32:28 away win was followed by a 33:30 home victory against their rivals in last season’s Last 16.
HC Vardar (MKD) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Sunday, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV
Fortuitous as they were to stay top of the group after the defeat at Meshkov, as their closest rivals also lost, Vardar can ill afford a slip-up against an unpredictable Kristianstad if they are to advance into the quarter-finals as the group winners.
All the Macedonian giants need to do is avoid defeat against the Swedes in their Jane Sandanski arena, but they must be wary of the banana skin this seemingly straightforward task represents.
Kristianstad may have nothing to lose and everything to play for, as victory or even a draw could see them reach the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout stages for the first time.
The Swedish side will know beforehand whether they have any hope of going through, as a Celje win at Zagreb on Thursday would leave them with no chance of progressing.
A balanced attack combined with determined defending enabled IFK to engineer a thoroughly impressive home win over Kielce in the previous round and the Swedish side are likely to stick to the same script as they aim to repeat the feat against Vardar.
Philip Henningsson and Tim Sorensen led the way with six goals each, taking advantage of space created by Kielce’s tight marking of IFK’s top scorer Jerry Tollbring, whose speed on the flank will again be essential.
Vardar, on the other hand, will need to improve in all departments from the tame 30:26 defeat at Meshkov, where their defence leaked goals at an alarming rate while the offence struggled against a rugged home rearguard.
Passionate home fans will certainly create a cracking atmosphere as Vardar aim to skip the Last 16 and clinch direct passage into the quarter-finals, while Kristianstad will hope to produce the handball shock of the century should the Zagreb vs Celje result go their way.
TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / bc