Rocas and Garcia reunited at RiojaArticle
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown, part 16: Naturhouse La Rioja with plenty of room for improvement after last season's early exit and a place in the Last 16 is the goal

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Rocas and Garcia reunited at Rioja

It’s not a matter of age when it comes to being successful – if you are fit and experienced enough, you still can compete with the best of the best. So those at Naturhouse La Rioja say as they prepare for their second season in the VELUX EHF Champions League.

The Spanish runners-up, who left Valladolid behind in the Asobal league, signed two of the most experienced Spanish wing players over the summer - Juanin Garcia, the all-time top scorer of the Asobal league, and Albert Rocas.

Both had their magic years at FC Barcelona, and as Garcia arrived straight from the Catalans, Rocas intermediately had been playing for KIF Kolding in Denmark. In Logrono they are re-united again.

Mainly thanks to both top wings Naturhouse hope to go one step further compared to their debut season, when they highly closely missed the qualification for the Last 16.

In additional to Rocas and Garcia, the Spaniards have signed Swedish talent Philip Stenmalm, who had been awarded Most Valuable Player at the 2013 Junior World Championship when he took gold with the “Tre Kronor” team.

Coach Jesús Javier González Fernández's squad underwent plenty of changes over the summer, as eight newcomers came in to replace ten departures, which included a quartet of retired players.

The goals are clear for Naturhouse this season: make it to the knock-out stage of the VELUX EHF Champions League and qualify for Europe again with a strong showing in Spain.

Progressing from the group phase will not be easy, as they face three teams with sights firmly set on the VELUX EHF FINAL4, Kiel, PSG and Metalurg, as well as Zagreb and qualifiers Meshkov Brest.

Manager Jaime Luis González Gutiérrez hopes to continue for as long as possible in the “greatest adventure in the young history of our club. Our target is to have a good atmosphere in our arena and to win our home matches.”

Goalkeeper and team captain Gurutz Aguinagalde Akizu, brother of Spanish international and Kielce line player Julen Aguinagalde, expects an close race for the knock-out stage below the two top teams: ”In our second appearance in the VELUX EHF Champions League we should make it to the Last 16 but it isn’t easy, because our group is very strong.

“Paris Saint-Germain and THW Kiel are the best teams and they will finish on top of the group.

“The remaining teams are good squads with great experience in this competition. So it will be difficult to qualify for the Last 16.”

Three questions to coach Jesús Javier González Fernández:

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

Jesús Javier González Fernández: For us it is a challenge to qualify for the Last 16. Paris Saint-Germain and THW Kiel will be in the first positions. HC Metalurg has proven its strength in the Champions League and the Macedonian league and RK Zagreb is a good team with a nice group of young players.

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

Jesús Javier González Fernández: To be part of the competition is the biggest target in the short history of my club and a nice reward for the good job of the staff. I hope this season we can do well as a team and enjoy the Champions League in the future.

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

Jesús Javier González Fernández: There are several top teams this year, but I think the favourites are:

THW Kiel - they have the biggest budget and it is a tradition to see them in Cologne.
Paris Saint Germain Handball - they improve each year and they managed to sign even more big stars this season.
FC Barcelona - each year they add good players to their excellent team and improve small details.
KS Vive Targi Kielce - they have a good coach, who is able to improve the players with his tactics.
Vezprem - with their magnificent centre backs they can change the run of a match within a few seconds. They are a dangerous team.

Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP)

Qualification for the 2014/2015 VELUX EHF Champions League season: Spanish runners-up

Newcomers: Jorge Gómez Lite (BM Aragón),  Juan Antonio García Lorenzana (FC Barcelona), Philip Stenmalm (Drott Halmstad), Víctor Vigo Gerpe (BM Guadalajara), Pablo Cacheda González (Cuatro Rayas BM Valladolid), Albert Rocas Comas (KIF Kolding), Javier García Rubio (HBC Nantes), Diego Martín Santamaría (Naturhouse La Rioja youth team)

Left the club: Jorge Martínez Martínez (retired), Unai Arrieta Aizpurua (retired), Arthur Malburg Patrianova (BM Villa de Aranda), José Manuel Rial Ricoy (Juanfersa Grupo Fergar), Alexander Tioumentsev (Orlen Wisla Plock), Aidenas Malasinskas (Fertiberia BM Puerto Sagunto), Josep Masachs Gelma (Stinta Municipal Dedeman Bacau), Jon Ramiro Pérez (retired), Pablo Hernández Suárez (retired), Miguel Ángel Velasco Encinas (retired)

Coach: Jesús Javier González Fernández (since 2007)

VELUX EHF Champions League records:
Participations (including 2014/2015 season): 2
Group Phase (1): 2013/14

Other EC records:

Semi-finalist: 2009/10, 2010/11
Group Phase 2012/13

Spanish league champion: - (runners-up in 2014)
Spanish Cup winner: - (runners-up in 2013)

TEXT: Björn Pazen / cor