Expectations remain high at Palau BlaugranaArticle
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown, part 4: With domestic success all but a formality, reaching Cologne for the fifth time in six years is a must for FC Barcelona

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Expectations remain high at Palau Blaugrana

Despite reaching the final destination of Cologne four times, FC Barcelona has only once lifted the coveted trophy in the VELUX EHF FINAL4 era. With that in mind and another near miss fresh in the memory, one of the team's clear goals is to make it back to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 again, and maybe avoid a German team this time around.

The Catalans’ only win against a German came in 2011 against Rhein Neckar Löwen compared to two final defeats against Kiel (2010) and Hamburg (2013) as well as last season’s thrilling semi-final loss to eventual winners SG Flensburg-Handewitt.

Opportunities to make up for that heart-breaking loss present themselves to Barcelona at the IHF Super Globe next week, if they meet Flensburg, as expected, in the final and two guaranteed encounters in the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase.

Additionally, the seven-time EHF Champions League winner will compete with Kolding, Alingsas, Plock and the winner of qualification tournament 3 in the first stage of the competition.

The Barca squad did not change all that much in the squad, with all of their top back court players such as Nikola Karabatic, Kiril Lazarov and Siarhei Rutenka remained in the blaugrana jersey.

Departures included all-time top scorer of the Asobal league, Juanin Garcia (La Rioja), and Spanish world champion Arpad Sterbik (Vardar Skopje), who both found new jobs at Champions League clubs, while Slovak left wing Martin Stranovsky transferred to German side Erlangen.

Sterbik’s replacement, Gonzalo Pérez De Vargas, is very well known to Barca, as he comes from the youth programme of the Catalans and was on loan at French side Felix Toulouse until now and the goalkeeper promises that he is ready for the challenge.

Coming into the squad are two players from one of Barcelona’s top rivals, Tunisian left back Wael Jallouz and Icelandic left wing Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson arrived from THW Kiel.

With those newcomers, the goals for the upcoming season are the same as last year’s: to win all available competitions.

The domestic competition has become a one-horse race, with Barcelona winning the Spanish Asobal league at a canter last season.

That means that coach Xavi Pascual and his team can fully focus on the VELUX EHF Champions League.

“Our main objective is to be part of the FINAL4. It’s a difficult journey, starting against strong opponents in the group phase but I believe in my team and I believe we will be in Cologne for the fifth time,” says Pascual.

For team captain Victor Tomas it is “always important to play well during the group phase and to try to reach the top position to have the second match at home in the Last 16 and the quarter-finals.

“The group will be so difficult because we face Flensburg, current champions, and strong Scandinavians teams. But we recognised in the previous seasons that all teams in the Champions League are at a high level.”

Three questions to coach Xavi Pascual:

What are your expectations for the upcoming season of the VELUX EHF Champions League - regarding your objectives and group opponents?

Xavi Pascual: Our objectives as FC Barcelona are always the same in all competitions. Being on top is mandatory when you wear the FC Barcelona shirt. But we cannot win only because of the jersey. We need to work hard, be patient and try to develop our best handball during the whole season.

What does the participation in the VELUX EHF Champions League mean to you and your club?

Xavi Pascual: The VELUX EHF Champions League is the main competition in European handball. We are very proud to be involved in this competition

What teams are your personal favourites to reach the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and to win the title this season – and why?

Xavi Pascual: It’s very difficult to say what might happen during the season. The teams which were not on the favourites list last season can achieve the title this time. In my personal opinion I guess that a lot of factors can be decisive to be the champion: luck, injuries or rivals. So it is very difficult to give a few names.

FC Barcelona (ESP)

Qualification for the 2014/2015 VELUX EHF Champions League season: Spanish champions

Newcomers: Gonzalo Pérez De Vargas (Fenix Toulouse), Wael Jallouz (THW Kiel), Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson (THW Kiel)

Left the club: Juanin García (Naturhouse La Rioja) Arpad Sterbik (Vardar Skopje) Martin Stranovsky (HC Erlangen)

Coach: Xavi Pascual (since February 2009)

VELUX EHF Champions League records:

Participations (including 2014/2015 season): 18
Winner (7): 1995/1996, 1996/1997, 1997/1998, 1998/1999, 1999/2000, 2004/2005, 2010/2011
Final (3): 2000/2001, 2009/2010, 2012/13
Semi Final (2): 2007/2008, 2013/2014
Quarterfinal (3): 2005/2006, 2006/2007, 2011/2012
Last 16 (1): 2003/2004
Main Round (1): 2008/2009

Other EC records:

EHF Cup:
Winner: 2002/2003
Finalist 2001/2002

Cup Winners Cup:
Winner: 1993/1994, 1994/1995

Spanish champion: 1968/69, 197/73, 1979/80, 1981/82, 1985/86, 1987/88, 1988/89, 1989/90, 1990/91, 1991/92, 1995/96, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 1999/2000, 2002/03, 2005/06, 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14

Spanish Cup winner: 1968/69, 1971/72, 1972/73, 1982/83, 1983/84, 1984/85, 1987/88, 1989/90, 1992/93, 1993/94, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1999/2000, 2003/04, 2006/07, 2008/09, 2009/10, 2013/14

Asobal Cup winner: 1994/95, 1995/96, 1999/2000, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2009/10, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14

TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor