'Rhapsody in Yellow" rules the roundArticle
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BLOG: ehfTV.com commentator Tom Ó Brannagáin looks back at Tuesday's Last 16 draw and shares his expectations for a round in which not everything a clear cut

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'Rhapsody in Yellow" rules the round

The crowds assembled. The technicians fumbled over wires, lights and sound systems. Everything was checked, double checked and triple checked. Club representatives chatted knowing that the next few moments could determine their longevity or brevity in the VELUX EHF Champions League. Every single one of them knew exactly who they wanted and who they didn’t. It was a draw like no others in previous years. The potential for upset was around every corner, in the unscrewing of a small plastic sphere.

For some teams, it was enough to be at this stage. They know their limitations and a big draw against a big, well-known team was the best they could hope for.

As a hush descended and all took their seats, the anthem of the competition played and the draw began. On a personal note, I was just as excited as watching fans and teams. There were certain games I wanted to see. There is inevitability about draws, a confluence of events that leads certain teams to be drawn against each other. I mentioned three such match-ups in my pre-draw blog and lo and behold I got my wish. If I could bottle that gut feeling that leads me to wish for and get the games I want, I would win the lotto every time.

So for instance, Aalborg, knowing that they had no chance against the big boys hoped for Barcelona or Kiel. Serendipitous for them? Well they had a two in three chance. They got Barcelona, they will have a big night In the Gigantium and then, well, that should be that.

History dictated that Celje should meet Flensburg on the tenth anniversary of their win of ’04. Good game in Celje, but the Germans should progress.

In four of the knockout games, should the top teams arrive in a professional manner and play to their abilities, then I’m afraid the result is a foregone conclusion. I cannot see the Zappers, Gorenje, Celje or Aalborg progressing. They are good teams, but not wishing to damn them with faint praise, they are not in the same league as Kiel, PSG, Flensie or Barcelona, their respective opponents. Sure enough Kiel won’t be happy at facing a trip to Ukraine, but they will finish the job and progress.

Plock vs Veszprem is an interesting one. Two Spanish coaches face each other. The wily old fox and the young pretender! Should Jurkewicz be fit, I think that Plock will give the Hungarians a tough game in the Orlen arena and then, maybe a tough game in Veszprem. Home crowds will be so important in these two games, but I think Ortega and company should just about do it.

Metalurg vs Kolding will be a tough, tough game and my brain is not helping me decide who might win. I don’t even have a gut feeling as to who might win. I watch hours upon hours of handball and sometimes my brain, or gut, tells me something that I can’t explain. All the information in my head is boiled down to a certain fact that this will happen or that might happen. It’s difficult to explain. In this game I know the strengths of both team and their weaknesses. They are so similar, but at the moment one has a left hander in Vugrinec that could decide the game; the other has Hvidt in goal. Both are tremendously strong in defence, the bedrock of their teams. Metalurg has the Boris Trajkovski, Kolding the Trefor. Each team is an extension of a nation; Kolding predominantly Danish and Metalurg, Macedonian. All I know is that it is the perfect storm, a meeting of minds a clash of gargantuan proportions.

The same goes for my “Rhapsody in Yellow”. Kielce faces Lowen. Two teams that play in yellow, they have each got three words in their name. They both have coaches that are students and masters of the game. They have the wing combinations of Strlek/Cupic facing Gensheimer/Groetzki. It is a confluence of events. Not least of these is the return of Szmal, Bielecki, Cupic, Lijewski and Tkaczyk to their former stomping ground. This game could be a final. This game is a final. Two handball crazy cities will bring everything to their teams to push them over the line. Both these teams were tips of mine to progress to the FINAL4. Whichever wins this round will go to the FINAL4. There isn’t a sheet of tissue paper between these two teams. Not even they will know who will win. But what I do know is that yesterday’s draw has given us the most mouth-watering prospect in the first knockout stage. This is the clash of the Titans.

This leads me to my last game, in which Hamburg will face Vardar. The champions face the toughest team they could have faced in this draw. They have yet to face an opposition like this in the competition this season. My gut is telling me that Hamburg are in for a rude awakening. And I cannot explain why. They have the world player of the year in their ranks, they won last year against all the odds and they should be favourites. But they are not. At least not in my book. The Vardar team is a mish-mash of styles and nations. They can play quickly, slowly, to the line, counter attack and they are capable of adding a little spice if needed. They are tough. And they have conceded fewer goals in a tougher group. Hamburg has not faced any opposition except for Flensburg and they lost one of those. They are a very good team, but also have the responsibility of defending their crown. Everything in my brain is screaming upset and no amount of challenging myself will stop the feeling. 

But once again, I have no crystal ball. There is an old Irish legend of a man named Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool). He had the gift of foresight, by sticking his thumb in his mouth. The future would then become clear to him.

I don’t have that power and in the end people will disagree with me.

But for sure we have to give the thumbs-up to a fantastic draw and the promise of so many amazing games to come.

To those about to play, we salute you.

TEXT: Tom Ó Brannagáin, ehfTV commentator