GROUP 1 PREVIEW: The four quarter-finalists from Group 1 are set. Three of them still have something to play for this weekend as their final position in the group has yet to be determined.
FTC, Vardar, Buducnost still in hunt for top spot
With one match to go, the four quarter-finalists from Group 1 have already been named. FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria, HC Vardar, Buducnost and Metz Handball have all secured their spots in the next round.
While Metz are sure to finish fourth, the three other teams do not yet know their final ranking, and they all still have a chance to finish first.
• Vardar replaced their coach for a second time this season as Irina Dibirova took over from David Davis
• FTC dropped a point against THC but remained on a six-game unbeaten streak
• Metz settled on fourth place to reach the quarter-finals for the first time
• Karina Sabirova remains the competition's best scorer with 77 goals
FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria (HUN) vs Buducnost (MNE)
Saturday, 15:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
The Hungarian side missed out on a club record last week when their five-match winning streak ended in Nordhausen, where they shared the points with THC (29:29).
Nevertheless, it was a lucky result for FTC as they saved a point in the closing minutes, and this point actually lifted them on top of Group 1.
A victory against Buducnost will definitely keep the team of Gabor Elek there. Winning the group could also be possible after a draw or even a defeat, but only if Vardar stumble at home against Thüringer.
Buducnost also have a mathematical chance to become group winners. The Montenegrin side need to beat FTC by more than eight goals after their 33:25 defeat at home, and they also need help from THC, which have to defeat Vardar.
In any case, Buducnost deserve credit for their recent performances. Following a series of unconvincing results, they beat Vardar away from home and outplayed Astrakhanochka to reduce the gap to the top two spots in the group.
Astrakhanochka (RUS) vs Metz Handball (FRA)
Saturday, 17:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Mainly honour is at stake when Astrakhanochka host Metz as both teams will not move in the standings regardless of Saturday's result. While the Russian team will remain bottom of the table, Metz have secured fourth place.
The Russian champions would like to leave the tournament on a high. At home they can be dangerous to any opponent as they proved two weeks ago by beating THC.
Also, Karina Sabirova has a personal motivation to finish the main round as the tournament's top scorer. Last week, she netted just once against Buducnost but still stayed on top of the charts with 77 goals, three ahead of her closest rival, Amanda Kurtovic from Larvik.
Metz have boasted a great defence throughout the season, but the game against Vardar proved they also have a strong attack. The 42:28 win was a moment of glory for the French champions, who secured their spot in the next round.
As Metz have never reached the quarter-finals before, this is an important milestone for them. And it even makes them think about getting to the EHF FINAL4.
"If we play like this, we can beat anyone," Metz president Thierry Weizman said after the triumph over Vardar.
In the quarter-finals, Metz are set to face Györ, which are at least of a similar calibre to the Skopje side.
HC Vardar (MKD) vs Thüringer HC (GER)
Saturday, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Something has gone wrong with Vardar in recent weeks. Their home defeat against Buducnost, followed by the devastating loss in Metz last week indicated a slump in form.
It prompted the club management to change the head coach for a second time during this season. David Davis, who was only appointed in November, has now been replaced by Irina Dibirova.
Known under her maiden name Poltoratskaya until getting married to Vardar player Timur Dibirov, the Russian coach, will make her debut on Saturday, one day before her 38th birthday.
Dibirova has never worked as a head coach before but she does not see it as a disadvantage.
"Maybe it is good that I have not coached before as I have no pressure. Each team can improve and so can Vardar," Dibirova said. "We have excellent players. We just need to sort out our tactics a bit, and it will be good. I want the team to play more aggressively and to fight."
Saturday's opponents THC fought hard for a play-off spot but have been left without a chance to advance from the group.
After a disappointing defeat at Astrakhanochka, they came very close to upsetting group leaders FTC but failed to keep their advantage in the last minutes.
"We earned one point but deserved two, so it felt like a victory," said Thüringer coach Herbert Müller said, adding that their European campaign had been a good experience. “We have had an outstanding season in the Champions League and I am very thankful to our faithful fans."
TEXT: Sergey Nikolaev / ew