Flensburg are the champions, but Barcelona remain favouritesArticle
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ROUND PREVIEW: Reigning VELUX EHF Champions League winners SG Flensburg-Handewitt as well as Super Globe champions FC Barcelona are both to be found in an intriguing Group B

»EHF CL Channel »2014-15 Men's News

Flensburg are the champions, but Barcelona remain favourites

When SG Flensburg-Handewitt won the VELUX EHF FINAL4 back in May, it came as a surprise to most people in the handball world.

This weekend, the northern Germans will start their title defence on the back of having to replace players such as substitute goalkeeper Søren Rasmussen, who played a great part in the their triumph in the LANXESS arena in Cologne in May, as well as the experienced line player Michael V Knudsen and right back Steffen Weinhold.

On a positive note, Flensburg can welcome the hard-shooting left back Lars Kaufmann back from his one year injury break, a serious boost to the team’s back court.

One of the toughest rivals in the group phase will be FC Barcelona, who are almost always mentioned among the hottest favourites for the title. The Catalonians, who have won the EHF Champions League seven times already, proved that they mean business once again, as the won the Super Globe in Qatar earlier this month.

Barcelona will have to play their first group matches without right wing Victor Tomas, who has fractured his hand, but even this handicap does not remove the status as group favourites from the shoulders of the Barcelona players.

At first sight, 35-year-old Icelandic left wing Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson seems like their most exciting new signing.

KIF Kolding København have said goodbye to right wing Albert Rocas and defence specialist Joachim Boldsen, but even though no replacements have been signed for those key players, the Danish champions look stronger than last year, simply because they are not bothered by that multitude of injuries which handicapped them last season.

Lately, Kim Andersson, who has been nursing shoulder problems since April 2013, has even started shooting again, and in goal, veteran Kasper Hvidt has got himself a highly competent colleague in the shape of another former Danish international, Marcus Cleverly.

Orlen Wisla Plock will have ambitions of doing better than last season, where a fourth place in the group phase lead to an early exit in the Last 16. However, coach Manuel Cadenas’ men may have another tough season ahead, having said goodbye to players such as Marcin Lijewski, Nikola Eklemovic and Petar Nenadic.

Alingsas HK are in the VELUX EHF Champions League for the second time and after a five year break. It will be interesting to see what the Swedish champions can do in this tough group, and it will be particularly interesting to follow their promising young playmaker Jesper Konradsson.

For the first time in 11 years Turkish handball is represented in the Champions League, and for Besiktas MOGAZ HT it is even their debut in the tournament. The Turkish champions have promised to fight “until even their socks are torn apart”, and they are probably going to need to do that. However, it will be interesting to follow their most prominent signing, Croatian left wing Ivan Nincevic, who has joined from Dinamo Minsk.

Orlen Wisla Plock (POL) vs Besiktas MOGAZ HT (TUR)
Saturday 27 September at 16:00 hrs. local time - live on ehfTV.com

Wisla Plock will start their hunt for a better result than last season’s fourth place in the group phase, when they receive Champions League debutants Besiktas in the ORLEN Arena late Saturday afternoon.

According to Manuel Cadenas, who is coaching Wisla Plock along with being Spanish national coach, the first goal is to be among the four teams who proceed to the knock-out rounds, though.

It is always difficult to know what to expect from a team which has undergone so  many changes as the team of Plock has compared to last season, but if the Polish runners-up are going to live up to Cadenas’ goal, this opening match is one they will have to win.

At home against Besiktas, Plock look like obvious favourites, even though they cannot find their optimism in the statistics, as the two teams have never met in a competitive match.

Besiktas will obviously come with a lot of fighting spirit and self-confidence from their clear 34:25 win against Romanian champions HCM Constanta in the final of Qualification Group 3, but Wisla Plock on away ground will probably represent a somewhat bigger hurdle than Constanta at this point.

“On the court, the conditions are the same for all teams, each team plays with seven players,” Besiktas manager Berk Karahan said, and that is probably the attitude that should help Besiktas get through.

KIF Kolding København (DEN) vs SG Flensburg-Handewitt (GER)
Sunday 28 September 16:50 hrs. local time - live on ehfTV.com

Quite naturally, local derbies are rare in the VELUX EHF Champions League. However, with only a bit more than 80 kilometres between the two cities, we can definitely talk about a local derby in this case.

Considering the short distance, it is understandable that the two clubs often play test matches against each other, and one of those ended in a 30:30 draw before the start of this season.

When it comes to competitive matches, though, the internal meetings between the two teams have been far more scarce. Actually, they are narrowed down to four matches.

In the EHF Cup of the 1995/96 season, Flensburg won 26:19 in Kolding and 25:23 at home, and the only time the two team have met in the Champions League, it also ended with a clear aggregate win for Flensburg.

In the first leg of their Last 16 meeting in the 2003/04 season, Flensburg won 30:25 at home. Kolding moved the second leg to Aarhus in order to have room for more spectators. They regretted that step very much, as they lost 33:20, which is still the club’s biggest home defeat to date.

So this time, KIF stay in the Tre For Arena of Kolding with a capacity of 3,000 spectators, where all seats were sold by Tuesday morning, with only very few standing places left.

While KIF were haunted by lots of injuries last season, the only uncertainty at the moment is if defence expert Lars Jørgensen will have recovered from the concussion he sustained in a league match against fellow European participants Aalborg a couple of weeks ago.

Considering the short geographical distance, Flensburg may not feel that this is a real away match and they are obviously favourites. However, being ruling Champions League winners and thus being the team every other team wants to beat, may add some pressure, leaving goalkeeper Mattias Andersson cautious.

“I expect a tough match. Kolding have a highly experienced team with an extremely strong defence,” Andersson told ehfCL.com.

Alingsas HK (SWE) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)
Sunday 28 September 17:30 hrs. local time - live on ehfTV.com

Five years after their Champions League debut, Alingsas are ready for their second try in the tournament. Their first Champions League adventure ended with the group phase, as they were fifth in their group, only leaving Norwegian Fyllingen behind them, and they realise that reaching the knock-out matches will also represent a tough challenge this time.

“You must always look for the chances, and of course the possibility to reach the knock-out phase is there,” head coach Mikael Franzén, who has Champions League experience as a player in Redbergslid and as coach in Sävehof, recently told ehfCL.com.

His men are starting their renewed Champions League journey with one of the toughest challenges they could ask for, taking on FC Barcelona in their opening match in the Estrad Alingsas, which is likely to be filled with its maximum capacity of 3,000 spectators Sunday. It is the first time in history that the mighty Barca visit the small Swedish town with a population of 23,000, so the interest ought to be huge.

Barcelona have already won their first title of the season, as they won the Super Globe in Qatar in convincing style at the beginning of this month.

There is no doubt that they are hungry for more, though, and they will arrive in Alingsas realising that a win against the Swedish champions will be a must if they want to win the group and get a probably easier draw for the Last 16.

Even without hand injured right wing Victor Tomas, Barca are clear favourites in this match.

TEXT: Peter Bruun / cor