PSG set to advance as chasing trio face crucial battlesArticle
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GROUP A PREVIEW: Naturhouse La Rioja, HC PPD Zagreb and Meshkov Brest have must-win games on their hands in a fierce three-way battle for berths in the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout stages.

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PSG set to advance as chasing trio face crucial battles

With three rounds to go in the VELUX EHF Champions League group stage, there is little or no room for error left as three teams enter the home straight in a bid to reach the last 16.

With THW Kiel already qualified and PSG virtually assured of joining them, HC PPD Zagreb, Meshkov Brest and Naturhouse La Rioja are headed into the eighth round of matches, the last one before the international break, needing wins to stay in contention.

The games have been spread over a week as La Rioja are at home to Kiel on Wednesday, Brest visit bottom team HC Metalurg on Saturday and Zagreb entertain PSG next week.      


Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) vs THW Kiel (GER)  
Wednesday, 3 December, 19.30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

This will undoubtedly be La Rioja’s most difficult of the three remaining fixtures as they aim to reach the business end of Europe’s premier club competition, although the one thing playing into their hands is the fact that Kiel have already advanced to the last 16.

The Spanish outfit earned a thrilling 33:33 draw at Meshkov Brest last weekend but missed a chance to beat their direct rivals and now face an anxious home straight, starting with a titanic clash against the German side.

If they are to stand any chance of upsetting the former European club champions, La Rioja will have to tighten their porous defence which has conceded 207 goals in seven games, bettering only the group’s basement boys HC Metalurg who have conceded three more.

La Rioja’s best hope is their fast-flowing attack where unselfish link-up play has enabled several talented players to come to the fore, notably Juanin Garcia, Pedro Rodriguez, Pablo Gonzales and Thiago Goncalves, who netted 18 goals between them against Meshkov.

A total of 11 players scored in Belarus and that kind of firepower should guarantee a thrilling game against Kiel, who have powered into the knockout stage despite the continued absence of Filip Jicha and Aron Palmarsson, while Marko Vujin was rested for the full 60 minutes against Zagreb.

HC Metalurg (MKD) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Saturday, 6 December, 19.00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

This match is nothing less than a survival battle as only a win will do for either side. HC Metalurg have a slim chance of staying in contention even if they beat Meshkov, who also must win if they are to keep alive any lingering hopes of progressing into the knockout stages.

Meshkov are away from home in all of their last three group stage matches and this should be by far their easiest outing, as the other two are daunting trips to THW Kiel and PSG.

Hence, two points against the Macedonian title holders and a combination of results going their way in the last two rounds is the only realistic scenario for Meshkov to advance, but Metalurg wil certainly not make it easy for them.

Rivals from the regional SEHA League, where they are yet to play each other this term, these two teams have met only once in a two-leg tie before, when Metalurg beat Meshkov Brest 55:51 on aggregate in the second round of the 2010/11 EHF Cup.

Brest won the reverse Champions League fixture 28:24 on home court in October and will start as slight favourites to complete the double over the Macedonian side, although their away form has been poor this season.
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs Paris Saint-Germain Handball (FRA)
Wednesday, 9 December, 18.30 local time, live on ehfTV

Definitely the group’s most appealing fixture, with PSG ready to book their last 16 ticket and Zagreb battling hard to fortify their position among the section’s top four teams.

HC PPD went down fighting at THW Kiel in the previous round. They have also received a welcome addition to their squad for the last two games of the group phase after the PSG game, as Bosnian right back Dusko Celica joined the Croatian champions on Monday after signing a 30-month contract.

“We have been looking all season for a reliable player able to do the job in defence and add bite to the attack at the same time,” Zagreb’s general manager Bozidar Jovic told the club’s website (

“Celica has played for several prominent clubs and is one of the key players for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national team, hence we feel he will be a real bonus to the squad and one that will provide options in the last 15 minutes when we had invariably ran out of steam,” he said.

PSG easily won the reverse fixture in Paris but in the Zagreb Arena, the pride of Croatian club handball will be a different prospect.

However, PSG’s Croatian trio Marko Kopljar, Jakov Gojun and Igor Vori will be no strangers to the atmosphere as they once again face their former club.

All three had a fine game in the weekend’s 35:24 rout of Metalurg, notably Kopljar who was the game’s top scorer with six goals and will be looking to carry his improving form into the game against Zagreb.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br