Croatian invasion in CologneArticle
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Eight players from two teams are hoping to go all the way in the VELUX EHF FINAL4 for the first time

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Croatian invasion in Cologne

Croatia do not have team representing them at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and have yet to have one since the inception of the event which is now in its fourth season.

However, this season will have a special Croatian feeling to it with eight players competing in the event, breaking the record for the amount of players from a nation that does not have a representative club.

Sweden previously held the record with seven players at the first and third event in Cologne, Iceland and Poland have had six and France five.

These figures certainly say something about the quality of handball in Croatia, something which Zagreb has proven in the past as two-time EHF Champions League winners and four-time finalists.

The abundance of Croatians at this stage of the competition is also sudden and remarkable. There have only been seven players to have played at this stage in the last three seasons.

Ciudad Real's Petar Metličić was the only one in the first season, the secondc saw Igor Vori, Blaženko Lacković and Domagoj Duvnjak (HSV Hamburg) with Ivan Čupić (Rhein-Neckar Löwen) and in the third season there were Ivan Ninčević and Denis Špoljarić (Füchse Berlin).

Seven in three years and never a title, not even an appearance in the final.

The eight players trying to change this face are all Croatian internationals, with bronze medals from the recent World Championship, EHF EURO and Olympic Games, and are representing two clubs.

Polish club KS Vive Targi Kielce have five (Venio Losert, Željko Musa, Denis Buntić, Manuel Štrlek and Ivan Čupić) and German side HSV Hamburg three (Domagoj Duvnjak, Blaženko Lacković and Igor Vori).

Ivan Čupić is desperate to go at least one step further than the semi-final defeat in his first VELUX EHF FINAL4 appearance.

“We're not going to Cologne as tourists,” says Čupić, who has been in exceptional form this season with 55 goals in just nine matches in the competition.

Venio Losert came to Poland in the middle of the season to replace Marcus Cleverly and join up with Slawomir Szmal and he is dreaming of his fifth final in Europe’s elite competition.

“I have never won the Champions League. Although I played four finals with Zagreb, Barcelona were simply unbeatable back then.

“I believe that now we have the quality to play well against them, even though the experience is on their side,” says Losert, who also played for Barcelona for three seasons from 2006-09.

In stark contrast to Losert’s experience, this will be the first time at this stage of the competition for Manuel Štrlek, Denis Buntić and Željko Musa.

HSV Hamburg’s appearance in Cologne in 2011 came with huge disappointment, losing to Ciudad Real in the semi-final before beating Löwen for third place.

“We were surely disappointed back then and now we're coming to fix things. Problems have followed us throughout the season with a lot of injuries and high speed of the Bundesliga.

“The Champions League is our main goal this season. We know how strong Kiel is, we have lost to them already this season but this will be a special match and our expectations are big. 

“I would personally really like to move to Paris as a champion,” says Igor Vori, Croatian national team captain.

Blaženko Lacković played finals against Kiel in the season of 2006/07, with his Flensburg team losing by two goals in one of the most exciting finals in the competition’s history.

“This trophy is the only one I'm still missing. We'll play Kiel and we know everything about them-from their glorious back court players to Omeyer who always brings memories for us Croats.

“Respect is definitely high for them and it was not important who we were drawn against, because you have to be able to beat anyone to win the title.

“We strongly believe that we can achieve our goal and we're looking forward to Cologne's spectacle,” concluded Lacković. 

TEXT: Bruno Pinević / cor