Hard remains optimistic despite flawed preparationArticle
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NEWS FEATURE: Austrian champions hope to make the most of home advantage in their quest for the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase entry as host of the qualification tournament

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Hard remains optimistic despite flawed preparation

Alpla Hard is hoping to make it third time lucky on 5 and 6 September in the attempt to finally survive qualification and reach the group phase of Europe’s elite competition.

Last season, the club located near Lake Constance completed a hat-trick of Austrian championships to earn another shot at VELUX EHF Champions League qualification.

After being part of the group matches in the 2003/04 season right following the first national title success, Alpla Hard failed twice in the qualification tournaments in 2012 and 2013, both times losing at the semi-final stage.

Big opportunity, bigger opponents

However, this year the Austrians have a big advantage on their side, as they will be hosting the qualification tournament next weekend.

Nevertheless, the task is a tough one, with semi-final opponents in the form of FC Porto, group phase participants last season and very worthy of a place in the top flight again this time around.

This fact kept Peter Thurnher, manager of HC Alpla Hard, realistic after the draw, which saw Ukrainian powerhouse Motor Zaporozhye drawn against Junior Fasano (Italy) in the other semi-final.

“It will be very difficult to proceed and I see Motor as heavy favourites in this group. We remember their qualities very well as we met two years ago in the EHF Cup and we also saw them last year in the qualification group in Vojvodina.

“Anyway, we are happy to host this tournament. It will be a great opportunity for our sponsors and for our fans. We will create a nice event and have good fun. That is all we want,” explained Thurnher.

Personnel problems

At the end of the preparation for the new season Hard were heavily struck with a series of injuries, meaning that at some test matches there more players missing than available to play.

Crucially, the long-term injury to right wing Marko Tanaskovic caused a lot of problems and forced the club to react by signing another Serbian, 23-year-old Mitar Markez, from former German EHF Cup winner Frisch Auf Göppingen.

Another newcomer is veteran Austrian international Roland Schlinger, who has already gained EHF Champions League experience with Hard’s fierce rivals Bregenz.

On the other hand, two key players have left the “red devils” after winning the Austrian double (league and cup) for the first time, with youngster Dominik Schmid, who debuted in the Austrian national team at the EHF EURO 2014, moving to German Bundeliga new boys Bietigheim, and Bernd Friede brought an end to his long and successful career.

“Pressure to improve”

Hard’s first major dress rehearsal for the new season and the qualification tournament ended in defeat against perennial title rivals Fivers from Vienna, 34:29 after extra-time in the Austrian Super Cup.

“We are under pressure, in domestic competition and on the international stage, but there needs to be pressure in order to improve,” admitted Roland Schlinger.

“We’ll try our best in Champions League qualification and additionally we hope to defend our title in Austria once again,” added the 31-year-old left back.

The club’s biggest international success to date is their Challenge Cup final appearance in 2008, when Hard lost out to Resita from Romania despite a narrow first leg win. However, a successful weekend at Sporthalle am See could see the Austrians reach a whole new level in the European handball lanscape.

TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor