European heavyweights congregateArticle
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ROUND PREVIEW: Great champions from all quarters of Europe take up battle formation in Group C, where some big guns are bound to fall at the first fence

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European heavyweights congregate

“Group of death” is a truism best avoided in a competition packed with quality teams, but Group C is definitely full of VELUX EHF Champions League heavyweights. Last season, four of the six teams featured in the Last 16, three played in the quarter-finals and MKB-MVM Veszprém went all the way to Cologne.

Also considering how miserably close Löwen and Vardar were to reaching the VELUX EHF FINAL4, the sextet of MKB-MVM Veszprém, Rhein-Neckar Löwen, HC Vardar, Chekhovskie Medvedi, RK Celje and Montpellier promises thrilling handball action with an almost unpredictable outcome.

Can Veszprém make it three-in-a-row?

Three of the six teams shared the same group last year, Veszprém advanced as group winners, Löwen finished second, while Celje was third, but this year HC Vardar will definitely have a say in the matter of which sides progress to the knockout stage, as will EHF Cup finalists Montpellier and Russian champions Chekhovskie.

The Hungarian champion finished on top of their group two years running, and had the best of familiar opponent Rhein-Neckar Löwen, whom they beat last year as well as in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final in 2008. MKB-MVM Veszprém even strengthened their impressive squad with reinforcements to all deparments, while Löwen have a rather long list of departures including coach Gudmundur Gudmundson.

Skopje squad second to none

Vardar used their abundant resources to further upgrade their enviable squad by landing the likes of Árpád Sterbik, Sergei Gorbok and Blazenko Lackovic, which rightfully made coach Raul Gutierrez Gonzalez optimistic.

Without the above mentioned superstars the Macedonian team only went down against to-be-champions Flensburg on an away goal rule after they remained unbeaten at home versus PSG and Barcelona.

Impossible to tell

It looks likely that Celje, Montpellier and Medvedi will battle it out for the fourth spot, for which it is impossible to tell who might have a small edge over the others. Celje lost quite a few important players, some of whom were distributed among group rivals (Marguc and Lékai to Veszprém, Mackovsek to Montpellier) and the same goes for Montpellier as well, who waved goodbye to William Accambray, Thierry Omeyer and Wissem Hmam.

Russian champions (13 times in a row) are coming back from a year long absence from the main stage of European handball but are eager to prove they can do well with only Russian players in their squad.

Chekhovskie Medvedi (RUS) vs MKB-MVM Veszprém (HUN)
Saturday 27 September at 18:00 hrs. local time – live on

The Russian ”Bears” will launch their Champions League campaign with a huge mountain to climb after a year-long absence from European handball as they play host to VELUX EHF FINAL4 participant MKB-MVM Veszprém.

Medvedi managed to create an ideal mix and match of talented youngsters and tried veterans as the only important departing player was the Skopje-bound Daniil Shishkarev. Although this Medvedi team is nowhere near the one that made it all the way to Cologne in 2010, no team will have an easy outing in Chekhov.

MKB-MVM Veszprém started the season in good shape; just like Medvedi the Hungarian champions beat their domestic rival to win the domestic Super cup. After years of building up their team Veszprém have finally become a compact force, where the starting line-up can be reinforced from the bench with equally great players.

The Hungarian champions will have their eyes fixed on Cologne and although they have a much stronger team than Medvedi, their first game is not to be taken lightly. A warning to consider for the Hungarians: Veszprém have never won a competitive away game at Chekhovskie Medvedi.

RK Celje Pivovarna Lasko (SLO) vs HC Vardar Skopje (MKD)
Sunday 28 September at 20:30 hrs. local time – live on

Celje might have lost quite of a few of their prominent players but the Slovenian team can always rely on the traditionally strong youth basis. Vardar on the other hand are on their way to becoming one of the strongest powerhouses in European handball.

The Macedonians arrive as huge favourites, but Champions League experience is not to be played down as Celje prepare for their 20th season in Europe’s top handball competition, a record only bettered by Zagreb. Exactly 10 years after their first and only Champions League triumph, the Slovenian team will field the youngest Celje team that has ever competed with an average age of only 23.

Although Celje have two Youth Olympic Games winners in their squad, Vardar arrive with their squad loaded with established superstars. The Skopje outfit boasted a great team last year but they were reinforced by such household names as Árpád Sterbik, Blazenko Lackovic and Sergei Gorbok.

Vardar have the tendency to be unpredictable as sometimes huge wins were followed by surprising results, poise of mind will be key for the Macedonians both for the game against Celje, in the sides first competitive meeting, and for the entire campaign.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs Montpellier Agglomeration HB (FRA)
Saturday 27 September at 21:00 hrs. local time – live on

The much-changed German outfit have already set a world record this year as their game versus Hamburg was the most visited handball event in the world with just over 44,000 spectators flocking the Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, which Löwen won against the 2013 VELUX EHF Champions League winners

Hamburg, but the team underwent important changes. Besides some important players the Germans lost their coaching team as well and will need a combined team effort to match last year’s phenomenal performance, when they got painfully close to beating Barcelona in the quarter-finals.

Montpellier had a great run in the EHF Cup last year as the French side reached the final, before losing to. Hungary’s Pick Szeged. However, the French bronze medallists have changed almost as much as their German counterpart with important players departed and no-one knowing what to expect from the transformed team.

Success is relatively granted in Montpellier by the presence of long-time coach Patrice Canayer, but team captain Michael Guigou is also optimistic ahead of the start of their group, where the French aim for the spot in the knockout stage.

Expect a crazy game: the two teams only met twice with the away teams emerging as winners in both cases. 

TEXT: Bence Martha