Women´s EHF Champions League Round 1 previewArticle
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Before the throw-off of the Women´s EHF Champions League here is a run down of the upcoming games

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Women´s EHF Champions League Round 1 preview

An exciting new season kicks off this weekend with a plethora of teams vying for the elusive trophy which Montenegrin giants Budućnost Podgorica won in a dramatic two-leg final against Hungary’s Gyori Audi ETO in May.

Both teams will again be in contention alongside Romanians Oltchim Vâlcea, Slovenia’s Krim Mercator, Norway’s Larvik and the Danish duo of Viborg and Randers.

There will be some dark horses too, namely Germany’s Buxtehuder who stunned Norwegian rivals Byasen to reach the group stage of the competition, as well as Russian powerhouses Dinamo Volgograd and Zvezda Zvenigorod looking to rekindle past glory. The likes of U Jolidon Cluj, making their debut in Europe’s elite, Podravka Vegeta, Thüringer, Sävehof and Hypo will pounce on any opportunity to get as far as they can in the 16-team competition.

Group A:
Oltchim Rm. Vâlcea (ROU) vs Hypo NÖ (AUT)

Sunday, 19:00 hrs local time in Ramnicu Vâlcea

The Romanian champions head into the new season with the highest ambitions, stronger for one of the world’s best players in Montenegrin right back Katarina Bulatović. The sharpshooter arrived from Budućnost Podgorica along with superb Spanish goalkeeper Silvia Navarro Gimenez and prolific scorer Alexandrina Barbosa, who joined Oltchim from 2011 finalists Itxako. The immediate task facing new coach Jakob Vestergaard, who twice won the EHF Champions League with Larvik, is making sure an entirely new team gels instantly after nine players left during the summer break.

Apart from the new signings, Vestergaard will welcome the return of Romania’s star player Cristina Neagu, who returns to top action after being sidelined for 14 months with a shoulder injury.

It should be an intriguing contest between big-spending Oltchim and Hypo, whose mixture of Austrian perseverance and Brazilian flavour should produce entertaining and fast-flowing handball. Brazil were the surprise package of the 2012 Olympics in London and with eight of the country’s internationals in Hypo’s ranks – four of them new signings – they should be able to give Oltchim a good run for their money on Sunday in a bid to reach the Main Round after a three-year barren spell.

HK Randers (DEN) vs Buxtehuder SV (GER)
Monday, 19:00 hrs local time in Randers

Buxtehuder staged one of the shocks of the qualifying staged when they beat Byåsen Trondheim on their own court to knock the Norwegians out of the group stage and take their place among the top teams.

The Danish outfit had a topsy-turvy season in Europe last term, having been eliminated in the Cup Winners’ Cup last 16 by Zvezda Zvenigorod after also failing to advance from a tough EHF Champions League group including Hypo, Györi and French side Metz Handball. This time they will try to reach the Main Round for the first time in the club’s history, having seen nine players leave the club as seven new arrivals aim to fill the void.

Randers will be bolstered by the arrival of some world class players such as Siraba Dembele, a double world championship runner-up with France, and Macarena Aguilar who reached the 2011 EHF Champions League final with Itxako and won the Olympic bronze medal with Spain.

They should start as favourites against Buxtehuder, who will nonetheless try to spring another upset with all the pressure of making a good start on their opponents. Watch out for a possible scoring slugfest between the home team’s Camilla Dalby and Buxtehuder’s Lone Fischer.

Group B
Györi Audi ETO (HUN) vs HC Podravka Vegeta (CRO)

Saturday, 17:15 local time in Györ

A winning start would be the perfect remedy for a heartbreaking defeat in last season’s final against Budućnost and Györi will undoubtedly start their campaign determined to make amends for last season’s failure.

With coach Karl-Erik Böhn stepping down to focus on the Hungarian national team and making way for Ambros Martin, the Hungarian giants will be confident of at least emulating their achievement as the Spaniard led his former team Itxako to the 2011 final against Larvik.

Györi will again be led by inspirational Serbian middle back Andrea Lekić and Norwegian pivot Heidi Løke, with Brazilian left back Eduarda Idalina Amorim providing the much-needed support. French line player Raphaelle Tervel joined from Itxako while Orsolya Herr will succeed legendary goalkeeper Katalin Pálinger between the posts but the bulk of the squad remains unchanged.

With no major changes in their own squad either, Podravka will hope to advance to the Main Round for the first time in three years as one of the competition’s stalwarts – it’s their 19th season in the EHF Champions League. Dane Jörn Pedersen took over as the club president from Krunoslav Besir and has made it clear the club’s objective was to survive the winter break in Europe’s premier club competition.

RK Krim Mercator (SLO) vs U Jolidon Cluj (ROU)
Sunday, 19:30 local time in Ljubljana

An intriguing tie between two teams which should be vying for the runners-up spot in the group alongside Podravka. Mercator, who were EHF Champions League winners in 2001 and 2003, have boosted their ranks with players from various corners in an effort to rekindle past glory and to do that they will have to overcome a stiff challenge from a confident Cluj team in rather adverse circumstances.

The Slovenian side, who have signed the likes of Carmen Martin, Linnea Torstensson, Gabriella Kain and Brazilian pivot Daniela Piedade, will sorely miss their top scorer Andrea Penezić, who suffered a long-term ankle injury playing for Croatia in the 2012 Olympics. Piedade and Martin will also miss at least the opening rounds and with Kristina Bille as well as Kristina Franić gone, Krim will have to be at their best against a team which overcame Russian side Rostov in their final qualifier to reach the group stage of the competition.

The Romanian runners-up, who finished behind Oltchim in the national league, first against a strong Muratpasa team from Turkey and then defied the odds to beat Rostov, who eliminated tournament favourites RK Zaječar of Serbia. Managing director Cosmin Salajan acknowledged he was proud and happy to see his team among Europe’s best teams and expressed hope they would prove their worth in the top tier.

Group C
Larvik (NOR) vs IK Sävehof (SWE)

Saturday, 17:45 hrs local time in Larvik

Larvik, the 2011 EHF Champions League winners, will head into this season aiming of repeating the biggest success of Norwegian club handball and stronger for the return of the legendary Gro Hammerseng, who will be back in actions seven months after giving birth to a son. Although Amanda Kurtovic left to join Danish rivals Viborg, the Norwegian champions will be bolstered by the arrival of Kristina Bille and Anja Edin, while team captain Tonje Larsen returns after missing the London Olympics with a knee injury.

“My opinion is that we have a stronger team this season than last year, the squad has more depth and that gives us more options,” Larsen said in the build-up to the new season. Larvik will be determined to erase the bitter memories of last season’s EHF Champions League semi-finals, when they were beaten comprehensively by eventual winners Budućnost.

Having won their fourth successive Swedish league title, Sävehof have become the only current club to be represented in both the men’s and women’s EHF Champions League group stage. This is the first time the women’s team qualified automatically and can also boast of another rare record: they are the only team with entirely comprising players from their own country.

They will be weakened by the departure of international goalkeeper Cecilia Grubbström to Viborg, but their manager Susanna Laursen still has high hopes of progressing into the Main Round. Against Larvik though, they will be rank outsiders and the match against the Norwegian giants should be a learning experience for her youthful team.

Dinamo Volgograd (RUS) vs FTC Rail Cargo Hungaria (HUN)
Sunday, 16:00 hrs local time in Volgograd

Dinamo missed out on a berth in the Main Round last season and having won the Russian league title for the fourth time in a row, they are now seeking success in Europe’s premier club competition. The Russian champions are a well-balanced team heading into the new season with a virtually unchanged squad, led by goalkeeper Anna Sedoykina and towering Ukranian shooter Anastasija Pidpalova. Several young players have made grade through the ranks to the first team, adding a fresh blood to a wealth of experience in their ranks.

Ferencváros hardly broke sweat to reach the group stage of the competition with an emphatic 71:48 aggregate win over Slovakia’s Iuventa Michalovce in their playoff, but competing for a berth in the Main Round will in all likelihood be a different prospect.

Their hopes of finishing in the top two in a very tough group will rest largely on the shoulders of Spanish international Nerea Pena Abaurrea, the top scorer in their rout of Michalovce after she netted six goals in each of the two legs. With Larvik the favourites and Sävehof the underdogs of the group, Rail Cargo’s matches with Dinamo could well be crucial for both team’s chances of advancing into the Main Round.

Group D
Budućnost Podgorica (MNE) vs Zvezda Zvenigorod (RUS)

Saturday, 20:00 hrs local time in Podgorica

Is there life after Katarina Bulatović in the Montenegrin capital? The defending champions will soon find out what their credentials are this season, having lost one of the world’s best backcourt players to Oltchim Vâlcea. The towering right back is not the only players whose absence will be felt, as Maja Savić and Bojana Popović retired, with the latter becoming the new team manager.

In addition, Sonja Barjaktarović and Ana Djokić signed for Rostov, meaning that coach Dragan Adžić has been left with the daunting task of building an entirely new team with seven new players, most of them very young, coming in to fill the huge void left by a star-studded outfit.

Club president Predrag Bošković was nonetheless confident the Montenegrin powerhouse would shine in the upcoming season. “We decided that, after a season in which we achieved all our dreams, we should make a new young team with high quality,” he said.

“We signed the best European players from the 1990 generation. And maybe there are still two players who could be of that age and play in Budućnost. I am convinced that Budućnost will secure a lot of top results in the next season and that we will be a most pleasant surprise.”

Zvezda had a relatively easy task of eliminating Issy Paris and Leipzig in the Wild Card tournament to reach the group stage of the competition and will by all means head into the cauldron of the Morača Arena confident of collecting all three points. It would be the first step towards emulating their 2008 success, when they won the Champions League in grand style as the competition’s debutants. Since then they have been eliminated three times in the Group Matches and team manager Zdravko Zovko’s first priority this time will be to reach the semi-finals.

Thüringer HC (GER) vs Viborg HK (DEN)
Sunday, 15:00 hrs local time in Nordhausen

The German champions collected just one point from six Group Matches last season but this time round they surely expect to do better, although their opening home match against Viborg will be a stern test of their ability to slug it out with Europe’s best.

Coach Herbert Müller has strengthened his squad with some top players, including two times EHF Champions League winner Anja Althaus, arriving from Viborg, and Danish international Mie Augustesen who signed from Randers. On top of that, Ana Gros has signed from Györi and goalkeeper Katarina Tomašević joined the team from Serbian champions RK Zaječar.

On the other hand, two big names have left Thüringer HC. Nora Reiche has returned to her home club HC Leipzig and Brazilian wing player Idalina Borges Mesquita has retired. The new-look team will play their home games at Nordhausen after being based in Erfurt last season.

Viborg too have their own issues to deal with as the winners of three EHF Champions League titles have been hit hard by injuries, in addition to losing several experienced stalwarts. Their Norwegian pivot Marit Malm Frafjord will be out for at least four weeks with a shoulder injury, leaving new acquisition Sabine Pedersen, who joined the team from Aalborg DH, as the only option on the line.

Norway’s left-handed shooter Amanda Kurtovic is also out with a long-term injury but the experienced goalkeeping duo of Cléopatre Darleux and Cecillia Grubbström should ease some of the woes for coach Martin Albertsen. Viborg’s goal remains to reach the Main Round and will hence expect to collect all three points at Thüringer, with Zvezda and Budućnost looking as much tougher opposition en rout to the last eight.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljević / br