A special moment in a special match in a special groupArticle
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BLOG: Tom O Brannagain considers taking a little shamrock with him to Skopje as the ehfTV commentator will pay his first visit to the new arena of Vardar on Sunday for the Match of the Week with Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

A special moment in a special match in a special group

If you ever get a chance, take a walk in downtown Skopje, by the river Vardar. It really is one of the most undiscovered capitals of Europe and is striking in its beauty.

The Horses Fountain, the National Theatre, the Pavillion and some of the most enormous statues you have ever seen. They certainly don't do things by half, the statue of Alexander astride Bucephalus, itself, is enormous.

Vardar is a mirror image of the city. They are certainly not doing things by half. Their squad is enormous. And in a city that loves its heroes, this team is certainly creating a few of their own.

With money seemingly being no option, they have bought and molded a new team that is rightly feared throughout Europe. But, unlike, say a PSG, they had not, until now, signed massive names in handball, but Dibirov, Brumen, Pribak, Dujshebaev, Karacic et al have etched their names in Vardar folklore.

This season however, they have gone for the really big names. Sterbik came. A marquee signing, no doubt, case closed. A few eyebrows may have been raised by the signing of Lackovic, but his performance last week, against a hapless Medvedi, was an eye opener for those of us who thought his best days might be behind him.

Not only have Vardar signed the big names, but they have used a big name (at least in FYR Macedonia) to christen their new stadium. Jane Sandanski, to the uninitiated, is a massive Macedonian hero.

Forget the rhetoric and the impossible to follow wiki explanation, take it from me, this man's name rates very highly in the pantheon of historical heroes. So famous is he, that his name appears in the national anthem.

A team whose name is drawn from the river and whose arena is aptly named cannot yet be stamped with “Made in Macedonia” just yet.

So international is their roster with no little amount of Russians among them, that Maximov could have been forgiven that he was being visited by the ghost of Christmas past last week.

At one stage four of his former charges played against his current charges giving the match a feel of Chekhov All-Stars, versus, well, Chekovski Medvedi. Poor Grams in goal must have hated the fact that so many attacking players knew his weak points as Vardar all but wrapped up the game with a 24:12 half time lead.

They entertain RNL this week, a first for MOTW to feature a team twice on away days in consecutive weeks. The Germans, probably deserve the “Made in Germany” tag more so than Vardar, as they in recent years have tried to incorporate a more local feel to their team.

Realising after the FINAL4 in 2011 that they needed a new direction, they made a concerted effort to bring more German and homegrown players into the squad. Gensheimer and Groetzki are local boys, but so is Rutschmann, the second choice goalkeeper.

There are a few others “locals” in the squad, but we haven't had the pleasure to see them yet. Otherwise, they are a collection of international players that is needed to compete at the highest level in the Champions league.

Much as Alexander tamed the horse Bucephalus, Vardar has reined in all comers this season albeit they had a tough game away at Celje. But one wonders whether the modern day heroes can tame the “Lions”.

This match could leave RNL four points behind the leaders with three matches played, but remember, last season, they also had a very inauspicious start and we all know how that ended.

Gonzalez, the coach of Vardar has done a great job with this team. Their handball is faster and more dynamic and the signing of Shiskarev on the right wing has given that side a new dimension, not to mention the relationship he has with Dibirov, his former teammate. But still they have some problems.

In fact both teams, and probably most teams, suffer from a lack of depth in the right back position. Dujshebaev, for Vardar and Petersson for RNL are both awesome players, but there is not much back up there. As we saw last week, for Petersson, it's not easy to play for a full sixty minutes.

If the game is played at the pace of the last two outings for Vardar, then right back could be key. You'd imagine the legs of the younger Alex would last longer.

Otherwise, they both have great shooters and line players, although I would rate Schmid as the best of all the centre players on show. Also the new pairing of Lackovic and Abutovic will no doubt have problems with Myrhol on the line. The right side of the defence, with Brumen playing at 2 will have to improve to match Ekdahl and Gensheimer.

But MOTW has another first here. It is our first time in a brand new, state of the art, purpose-built arena. We have visited some time-honoured temples of handball in our travels, but it will be interesting to see whether this will stand the test of time or if it becomes a monument to a former epoque.

As it's my first time visiting the Jane Sandanski, perhaps I should bring a housewarming gift. Maybe a little shamrock to wish them luck in their new home. And if I can invoke a little Irish blessing; “May the road rise with them” (Go n-éirí an bóthar leo)

It's a special moment. A special match, in a special group.

The amazing thing about this group is the possibility of any team taking points from any other and nothing is set in stone, except perhaps those statues in downtown Skopje.

TEXT: Tom O Brannagain, ehfTV commentator