Larvik out for revenge, Balkan derby beckonsArticle
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ROUND PREVIEW: Pressure is already mounting on the teams and this weekend's pairings promise fireworks on the court

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Larvik out for revenge, Balkan derby beckons

The second weekend of the Women’s EHF Champions League Main Round brings a pair of fascinating clashes as holders Györ take on Larvik in a repeat of last year’s two-legged final.

Having been soundly beaten by Györ in the 2013 title showdown, Larvik will surely be out to get some measure of revenge on their bitter rivals, albeit in the second group stage of Europe’s premier club competition.

Buducnost Podgorica, the 2012 winners, take on Krim Mercator at home in the other Group 2 match set to thrill fans who will undoubtedly pack the Moraca Hall in the Montenegrin capital.

Group 1 also features two intriguing ties, with IK Sävehof at home to favourites Vardar and Thüringer looking for their first points in the Main Round against Midtjylland.

Group 1
Thüringer HC (GER) vs FC Midtjylland (DEN)
Saturday 15.00 local time in Nordhausen, live on ehfTV

Despite losing to overwhelming group favourites Vardar in Skopje last week, Thüringer made a good impression and will head into the home game against Midtjylland confident that they can join the race for a runners-up finish that would secure a FINAL4 berth in Budapest.

Midtjylland won both games in the previous two meetings between the two sides in the 2011 group matches, but are unlikely to take anything for granted against a much-improved Thüringer team.

The home side will hope that their Czech sharpshooter Iveta Luzumova can reproduce the blistering form she displayed in Skopje, emerging as the game’s top scorer with eight goals against Vardar. Sonja Frey added six and should also be as much of a threat against Midtjylland, who relied on a balanced team performance in grinding out a slender one-goal home win over Sävehof.

Midtjylland warmed up for the clash with a comfortable 29:20 Danish league win over Kobenhavn, with coach Helle Thomsen rotating players throughout the match to keep his squad in shape for the visit to Germany.

“It was a perfect midweek fixture and exactly the kind of contest we hoped for, as we were able to rest some players and bring in others,” Thomsen, who extended his contract with Midtjylland by another three years earlier this week, told the club’s official website.

IK Sävehof (SWE) vs WHC Vardar SCBT (MKD) 
Sunday 15.30 local time in Partille, live on ehfTV

Having romped through the Group Matches in their maiden Women’s EHF Champions League season, FYR Macedonia’s emerging force Vardar showed no signs of slowing down in their main round debut.

Despite being made to work hard for an ultimately emphatic six-goal home win over Thüringer, Vardar once again displayed the makings of a championship-winning side seemingly poised to win the group and steamroll towards Budapest.

These two teams have never met in the competition and although Sävehof will start as rank outsiders, their good performance in last weekend’s 25:24 defeat at Midtjylland should instil hope in the Swedish outfit that they can stand their ground against star-studded opposition.

Vardar have the luxury of relying on a plethora of tried and tested players in any game to share both the scoring duties and the defensive workload, hence they are unlikely to settle for anything less that another win.

“We know we can play well on both ends of the court but there will be no resting on laurels because we have seen that no opposition can be taken for granted at the top level,” Vardar’s Croatian winger Maja Zebic told reporters ahead of the long trip up north to Partille.

“We expect to play our best handball and win in Sweden against Sävehof, who are excellent on home court. They are a typical Scandinavian team who play fast handball and never surrender, but we have to make our quality count so I hope we will come away with a positive result,” said Zebic.


Group 2
Larvik (NOR) vs Györi Audi ETO KC (HUN) 
Friday 20.00 local time in Larvik, live on ehfTV

Passion will be running high when 2011 champions Larvik meet holders Györ in this mesmerising clash of the titans which will set the tone for the rest of the what should be a vastly entertaining weekend.

Larvik will certainly feel they have a score to settle with their Hungarian rivals, who beat them four times last season and hold a 10-4 overall advantage in their European meetings.

Gyor, the odds-on favourites to retain the title, first whitewashed Larvik twice in last season’s main round and then repeated the feat in the final, when they won both legs to claim their first title.

It seems the defending champions only got stronger this term with Montenegrin right back Katarina Bulatovic joining their ranks, but their credentials were tested in last weekend’s home draw against Buducnost.

Gyor had to fight back from a four-goal halftime deficit to avoid what would been a stinging upset and there is little doubt that they are under pressure, perhaps for the first time this season, to deliver against the most awkward opposition imaginable.

With tickets for the encounter selling like hot cakes, the Larvik Arena is bound to be jam-packed on Friday evening. More than 400 players and managers from various clubs have requested audience for the match while Gyor have ordered 210 tickets for their visiting fans.

Larvik are under even more pressure than Gyor following their crushing 24:18 defeat at Krim which gave their coach Ole Gustav Gjekstad a real headache ahead of yet another tough challenge.

“Conceding 24 goals is not too bad but in offence, our game was well below par. Our lack of cohesion when we have the ball makes it easy for our opponents to unsettle us and that’s something we have to work on,” Gjekstad was quoted as saying by the club’s official website.

“We have to sort out our offence for the game against Gyor but unfortunately, we might miss Isabel Blanco who seems to have a serious shoulder injury.

“On the upside, we hope that Lise Loke can recover from a finger injury she sustained in training,” he said. 

Buducnost (MNE) vs RK Krim Mercator (SLO)
Sunday, 19.00 local time in Podgorica, live on ehf TV

Both teams will head into the game on a high, after Buducnost earned a draw at Györ and Krim blew away Larvik to set up a fascinating Balkan derby featuring two powerhouses from the former Yugoslavia.

Buducnost hold an 8-6 edge in the 14 meetings between the two sides, having won the last five games in the competition against the Slovenian side, while they battled out a 19:19 draw in their recent regional league clash. 

The last two wins for Buducnost against Krim in Europe’s elite club competition came during a memorable 2011/12 campaign, when the Montenegrin side twice beat their traditional rivals in the main round en route to winning their maiden title.

If current form is anything to go by, it is difficult to predict who might come out on top this time round. Neither side will lack confidence, as acknowledged by Buducnost coach Dragan Adzic and his counterpart Tone Tiselj.

“This is an extremely tough group and it will be difficult to get a result either on home court or away, but after the draw at Györ we will head into clashes with Krim and Larvik with even more self-belief,” Adzic told reporters.

“We lost to Krim in the regional league this season so we must stay fully focused, showing the kind of fighting spirit we did in Györ.

“A win over Krim would be a small step towards the FINAL4, which on the other hand will remain a far-fetched dream if we show anything less than 100 % commitment and discipline in the next two games,” he said.

Tiselj emphasised: “we know each other very well because we have played many times in various competitions and tournaments; therefore we know what we will be up against in the cauldron of Moraca Hall.”

Krim’s top scorer Andrea Penezic heaped praise on Buducnost.

“They have the best defence in Europe while their attack is just as disciplined and devoid of technical errors.

“We have to be as firm in defence as we were against Larvik because we know what kind of atmosphere we can expect, but we are ready for come what may,” admitted the Croatian left back.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor