PSG set to seal Last 16 berth as Zagreb clash with La RiojaArticle
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GROUP A PREVIEW: The French giants can seal their passage into the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition while Croatia’s title holders aim to at least make a big step forward when they host the unpredictable Spanish side.

»EHF CL Channel »2014-15 Men's News

PSG set to seal Last 16 berth as Zagreb clash with La Rioja

The long two-month break is finally over in the VELUX EHF Champions League with the weekend’s Group A triple-header promising some exciting contests as five teams are still vying to join already qualified THW Kiel in the Round of 16.

The German side, who booked their berth with several games to spare, are strong favourites at home against bottom team HC Metalurg, with the Macedonian outfit nurturing only a forlorn hope of avoiding an early exit.

Paris Saint-Germain Handball entertain Meshkov Brest and a win or a draw would effectively put them through to the knockout stages, while Zagreb and La Rioja lock horns in a mid-table contest whose winners would also be virtually assured of progressing from a tough and competitive section.

HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP)
Saturday 14 February, 18.00 hours local time, life on efhtv

Having stunned both of the group’s big guns at home when they beat the mighty Kiel and PSG under the helm of their passionate Montenegrin coach Veselin Vujovic, Zagreb can now look forward to a winner-take-all clash against La Rioja.

Should Belarusian title holders Meshkov lose at Paris Saint-Germain Handball, whoever comes out on top in the Croatian capital will advance into the round of 16 and hence a titanic tussle is on the cards with so much at stake.

Some players from both teams will also see the encounter as an opportunity to bounce back from the disappointment of missing out on a podium finish in this month’s World Championship in Qatar, where Croatia were eliminated in the quarter-finals at the hands of Poland who also beat Spain in the bronze medal game.

It should also produce a clash of contrasting styles with the group’s tightest defence (Zagreb) facing its second-strongest attack, as only Kiel have netted more goals than La Rioja’s free-scoring outfit.

“We’re up against a very serious opponent and there is no doubt that we will have to be at our best in order to keep our season’s perfect home record intact,” Vujovic told a news conference on Thursday.

“We will miss the injured Domagoj Pavkovic and Sandro Obranovic but I am not the kind of coach who looks for excuses and our objective is to make it five home wins out of five, meaning that we will play our hearts out to delight the club’s fans.”

Paris Saint-Germain Handball (FRA) vs Meshkov Brest (BLR)
Sunday 15 February, 17.00 hours local time, life on ehftv

Meshkov still have a slim chance of reaching the last 16 but they face a mammoth task as they need to beat the group’s top two teams away and hope that other results go their way if they are to sneak into the knockout stages.

Following their visit to PSG, the Belarus champions face a daunting trip to Kiel and bar a pair of miracles, it is hard to see them progressing.

However, stranger things have happened in handball and with PSG needing a draw to mathematically secure their passage, it should be an interesting match in the city of lights.

Fresh from winning the world championship in grand style earlier this month, a plethora of French national team players donning PSG shirts will in all likelihood receive a heroes’ welcome from the home fans and the reception is bound to fire them up to deliver for their club too.

A win would also be an ideal birthday present for PSG’s Croatian right back Marko Kopljar, who turned 29 on Thursday, while Meshkov will arrive in Paris aware that they have nothing to lose against one of the continent’s most expensively assembled outfits.

THW Kiel (GER) vs HC Metalurg (MKD)  
Sunday 15 February, 19.30 hours local time, live on ehftv

There should be only one outcome in this cat-and-mouse game, especially because Kiel have built a reputation of never taking any opposition lightly even if the odds are stacked in favour of the EHF Champions League’s treble former winners.

Kiel warmed up for Metalurg’s visit with an emphatic 41:32 Bundesliga win at MT Melsungen in which Croatia playmaker Domagoj Duvnjak shone with a game-high eight goals, keeping the German champions in the national championship’s pole position.

Although Kiel have already booked their Last 16 ticket in Europe’s premier club competition, there is little doubt they will want to keep firing on all cylinders and celebrate their eighth successive win after a somewhat surprising opening defeat at Zagreb.

In a bid to boost their hopes of doing well at home and in Europe, Metalurg have signed experienced 36-year old left back Rade Stojanovic and 22-year old Croatian right wing-back Marko Buvinic during the winter break.

Although the Macedonian side will be underdogs when they visit Kiel, their left back Filip Taleski promised they would give one of Europe’s most feared sides a good run for their money.

“We know who we are up against and we can’t make idle threats against a team with so much history and success, but we want to show that we are capable of standing our ground and we won’t go down without a fight,” Taleski told Metalurg’s official website (www.rkmetalurg,mk).

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br