The Palau demandsArticle
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BLOG: The ehfTV Match of the Week returns for the first time in 2015 and commentator Tom O’Brannagain sets the scene for Sunday’s VELUX EHF Champions League Group B decider between FC Barcelona and KIF Kolding Kobenhavn

The Palau demands

“Oh tomorrow I'm off to sunny Spain, y viva Espana”. Note to self, don't go singing that on the way to Barcelona. In theory, I'm not off tomorrow, but on Sunday for the MOTW between FC Barcelona and KIF Kolding Kobenhavn.

And lest I forget, they guard their identity with jealousy in Barcelona. For this is the Catalan heartland and the home of an institution in so many sports. This is the home of FC Barcelona with a history steeped in the Catalan identity, the community and a penchant for winning just about everything.

It's been a long time since we have visited the hallowed halls of the “Palau Blaugrana”. The reasons for this are numerous I suppose. Not unlike their merry band of supporters, who rarely stray to the arena for group matches due to the fact that they expect their team to qualify for the knockout stages; we also believe that this team will be there or there abouts at the end of the competition and therefore don't want to overload on the superstar team of modern day handball.

Weight of expectation

In fairness, this denies us the opportunity to see this palace in all its glory of antiquity. You cannot compare this arena to the modern edifice that is the home of Vardar Skopje. Yet this arena holds something that very few arenas can boast: History.

There are ghosts here. You can feel the atmosphere of times past when you enter. It's not dilapidated by any stretch of the imagination, but it is old. It is wise, and if it could talk, it would speak of triumphs past. The weight of expectation lies atop the shoulders of every player who dons the famous jersey and it is their duty to carry on a tradition that stretches back through the mists of time.

The crest of Barcelona is centre stage on the floor. It marks the arena. It shouts that this is our home and you must do something very special to beat us here. There are few signs that strike that terror into opposing teams. “This is Anfield” at Liverpool is a good comparison. But just like that team of the 70s and 80s, this Barcelona team has not managed the heady heights of the 90s and their last Champions League title came almost four years ago.

The weight of expectation and history has come crashing down upon them in recent years and they haven't performed as they might have done. Yet here in the “Palau”, they are almost invincible. Even though the crest on the court is hidden by the CL floor, it beats still like “The Tell-Tale Heart” of Edgar Allen Poe.

Backstage, as you might say, the dressing rooms are of the highest order, led to by a passage way festooned with all the players of the different sporting sections. As you walk along the 50m or so of narrow corridor, they stare at you, daring you to try and beat them on their home court.

The sign “Mès Que Un Club” faces you at every turn. The opposition and the home players are reminded always exactly what it means to play here. It is reminiscent of another sporting team “The Montreal Canadiens”, a club that also signifies a cultural identity. In their dressing room is a sign that reads:

“Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau, à vous de le porter bien haut”

Basically put, the older players whose arms are failing are passing the flame to the next generation. This Barcelona team, will always be compared to the team that dominated European handball in the 90s. They will always have the pressure of knowing that this arena holds great glories past, un-anticipated comebacks. An arena that deserves the name of “Palace”, because of what has occurred here.

They have had their own comebacks in recent years. The comeback against Atletico Madrid and last year against RNL. Yet somehow that magic that this venue brings is not transferred to the FINAL4.

But that argument is for another day, because when Kolding approach the court they will sense the glory, the past, the spirits that haunt the halls and of course look across the court to see one of the greatest assemblies of players in the modern era. I'm just hoping that the fans of FCB also realise the importance of this game.

It's a tight group and only first place will be acceptable. Anything less would be unimaginable.

The arena demands they win.

TEXT: Tom O'Brannagain, ehfTV commentator