And we’re backArticle
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BLOG: ehfTV commentator Tom Ó Brannagáin recaps the summer's headlines, provides a brief summary of each group and delves into the first Match of the Week between HC Metalurg and Paris Saint-Germain Handball

And we’re back

It seems like only yesterday that Ljubo Vranjes was dropping to his knees as he realised finally that Flensburg had reached the top of the tree in Europe. Alas, that these harmonious moments can never endure.

So ended last season in the VELUX EHF Champions League and we had a summer of activity, inactivity, Twitter and Instagram. Perhaps the summer can be best summed up in 3 words. “Ice bucket challenge”. The great and the good took part to bring ALS to the public’s attention and it was great to see so many high profile handball people take part.

But if you had a nose for seeking out the story then there were many to be had over the summer months. Victor Tomas and Roland Mikler got married. (Not to each other). Pavel Atman had a son. So did Vid Kavticnik. Luka Zvizej had twins. CL legend Igropulo had a daughter in Berlin. Johan Sjöstrand put up pictures of horses on Instagram. Zeitz didn’t cry when he left Kiel. PSG players phoned the fans. The worst kept secret of Sterbik going to Vardar was made public. Sjöstrand put up more pictures of horses on Instagram. Ljubo Vranjes is living the dream in Flensburg, which means that after another summer of speculation, Phillippe Gardent will stay another year in Paris. Timur Dibirov posted a pic on front of the Vardar (James Bond-esque) “Hotel Russia”, in Skopje. Richard Kiel, the actor who played Jaws in James Bond died. Kiel signed as many players as they could from Hamburg and Flensburg. Vugrinec played for Macedonia. Turkey is back in the CL. Be careful how you pronounce Besiktas; the k comes before the t. And speaking of Turkey, Brest is back as well although they are from Belarus. Kielce changed its name. Pastor and Cadenas bought more Spanish players. Ortega didn’t. Barcelona won the Super Globe, but got no revenge on Flensburg who lost in the semis. Players posted photos of blisters on their feet during pre-season and not wishing to sound like a broken record Sjostrand, well he posted some more pictures of, you guessed it, horses. Speaking of breaking records, Germany beat Denmark in having the largest ever number of spectators (over 40k) at a handball match played outdoors on a football pitch. Slovenia's super cup went outdoors as well, on a tennis court. You gotta “love” handball.

All in all it was a busy summer with comings and goings. Some teams are more or less the same and some have had huge influxes of new players. Every team has had to cut their cloth to suit their measure, so the big teams with big budgets have made big signings, whereas the clubs with less money have trawled the market looking for that diamond in the rough that might just tip the scales in their balance.

Whatever way you spin it, this season is looking like a very interesting CL. If you go by names alone Groups B and C look the toughest in terms of who might finish on top. Group C will definitely see two big names in European handball fall at the first fence. Group B will be a furious fight to the finish to see who will sit atop a serious sextet. Group A is not a foregone conclusion either, as Brest, by all accounts, is a tough place to go and Zagreb was constantly improving last season. But Group D is the most open of all. Accepting that Kielce looks odds on favourites, what do we really know about the other five teams? Untried and untested in Europe, to a lesser or greater degree, this could be a topsy-turvy, race to the death for the remaining 3 places.

Let’s face it; it is difficult to predict even the top team in any given group, with maybe the exception of group D.

As you may have read, my first four weeks take me twice to Macedonia, to Veszprem and to Denmark. The matches we have chosen look to be excellent pairings and our first one Metalurg against Paris Saint-Germain is of the finest order. Group opponents for the second year running, who could forget Metalurg’s win on home turf last year? I’m sure the Metalurg fans won’t let Paris forget it although the French would prefer to.

But PSG is a different animal this season. A “nouveau” goalkeeper in the guise of Omeyer, a “renforcement” of French players and a “soupcon” of humility has turned this much maligned and over-hyped team into a stern unit that has steamrolled all in its way this pre-season. (Including a hammering of Dunkerque in Trophée des Champions) The French backbone has breathed new life into the team and has drawn them closer to an adoring fan base.  However, the narrow loss away to St. Raphael of PSG shows, again, some frailty on the road.

By contrast Cervar has been searching for the new Cindric. A staggering signing last season, Lino has searched the highroads and byroads to strengthen his team for the coming season. No Vugrinec in the first game, for insulting a ref last season, (makes you wonder exactly what he said) means that they are significantly weakened. Will Lipovina play? He’s only 21 and they may decide to give Mirkulovski a run in that position. However the big Marsenic on the line looks an astute “Lino” signing. Metalurg, come to this game having suffered a huge defeat. Minus some top players, they were totally outplayed by Veszprem in Hungary.

But this is the Boris Trajkovski arena. And this is the Champions League.

Metalurg loves the CL.

It’s mouth-watering and the heat is on. I’m off out the back garden to ice myself down. Relax people. It’ll never appear on video.

TEXT: Tom Ó Brannagáin, ehfTV commentator