Vardar vow to turn their new home into a fortressArticle
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VELUX EHF Champions League countdown, part 19: HC Vardar caught one of the biggest fish in the pond as the signed Sterbik. The goalkeeping star boost their confidence in the hammer Group C.

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Vardar vow to turn their new home into a fortress

Vardar has its own arena and it is certainly something to be proud of. The 5,500 capacity Sportski Centar Jane Sandanski (named after a 18th century revolutionist) is the new home of both – men’s and women’s – EHF Champions League teams of Vardar Skopje.

Vardar hope that Jane Sandanski shall become a fortress and the starting point to make a dream come true: to be the first ever handball club with men and women participating in the EHF FINAL4 tournaments.

After the women already made it to the final destination Budapest in May 2014, after their debut season in the EHF Champions League, the men’s team have the same aim now.

In the previous season, Vardar were just one goal short of reaching the VELUX EHF FINAL 4 in Cologne, as they were eliminated by eventual champions Flensburg in the quarter-finals.

But it is not only Jane Sandanski which makes coach Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez and club owner Sergej Samsonenko feel optimistic, more so the big names Vardar has signed.

Headed by 2013 world champion, former World Handball Player of the Year and four-time EHF Champions League winner Arpad Sterbik (arriving from FC Barcelona) the prestigious squad had been strengthened enormously with players such as 2013 EHF Cup winner Sergej Gorbok (Löwen) and 2013 VELUX EHF Champions League winner Blazenko Lackovic (HSV Hamburg).

Besides the goal of making it to Cologne, the bolstered squad is supposed to leave their local rivals Metalurg behind in the Macedonian league. In the 2013/14 season, Vardar were surprisingly defeated by Metalurg.

The team’s preparation, including a ten days camp in the Slovenian Alps (Kranjska Gora), was intense, but in general Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez was highly satisfied with the integration of the newcomers.

Vardar need to play on a top level already in the group phase, as they were drawn in what is arguably the toughest group alongside with Veszprem, Rhein Neckar Löwen, Montpellier, Celje and Medvedi.

But despite those tough opponents the whole club is looking forward to the next successful steps, as manager Marko Savovski mentions: “This season we have four new players who can help us to achieve the goal that we haven’t made last year - to enter the VELUX EHF FINAL4 with the best four teams in Europe.

"In our group we have quality teams which have the same goal like us and we know that it will not be easy to participate in Cologne, but we will work hard to make it. Still it will not be easy for anybody to win in Skopje, in our new arena.”

Regarding the final position in the group phase, Savovski is quite confident. “Veszprem have small advantages for finishing on the first position. All the remaining teams have the same quality – so we cannot say so much about the final outcome at this moment,” he says.

Team captain Filip Lazarov even expects that his team will play a main role in the Champions League.

“We have new players who have big experience in Champions League and some of them have already won the competition. Our group is very difficult, composed by teams which are always on top, but I expect HC Vardar to be first or second ranked after the group phase,” he said.

Three questions to coach Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez:

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

Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez: We want to win all home games but we have to be very careful also in our away games. Our group is maybe the most difficult but I am sure that we will see very interesting matches. Veszprem are my favourite in this group but maybe there will be a surprise from other teams.

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

Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez: HC Vardar are imposing like a serious team which wants to play in VELUX EHF Champions League every year and always aims to be among the best ten teams in Europe. In Macedonia handball is sport number 1 and has constantly gathered more supporters every year, so we want to give them as much as we can, good and quality matches.

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

Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez: My personal favourites are THW Kiel, Barcelona, KS Vive Targi Kielce, PSG Handball, but my favourite team to win the Champions League is KS Vive Targi Kielce, because they have very good coach and this year they have enough time to prepare for winning the competition.

HC Vardar (MKD)

Qualification for the 2014/15 VELUX EHF Champions League season: Macedonian runners-up

Newcomers: Arpad Sterbik (Barcelona), Blazenko Lackovic (HSV Hamburg), Sergei Gorbok (Rhein-Neckar Lowen), Daniil Shishkarev (Chekhovskie Medvedi).

Left the club: Miladin Kozlina (GWD Minden), Luka Rakovic (HC Zagreb), Zlatko Daskaloski (CS Universitatea Timisoara), Mitko Stojlov (CS Odorheiu Secuiesc), Vlado Nedanovski (HC Vardar II), Gradimir Chanevski (HC Vardar II), Vlatko Jovchevski (HC Vardar II)

Coach: Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez (since November 2013)

VELUX EHF Champions League records:
Participations (including 2014/15 season): 9
Quarter-final (1): 2013/14
Last 32 (1): 1999/2000
Group Phase (6): 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2004/05, 2007/08, 2009/10

Other EC records:
Cup Winners’ Cup: Semi-final 1998/99, 2004/05, 2010/11, Quarter-final 2006/07
Others: Winner of SEHA Liga 2012, 2014

Macedonian champion: 1998/99, 2000/01, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2003/04, 2006/07, 2008/09, 2012/13
Macedonian Cup winner: 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014

TEXT: Björn Pazen / br