Last-gasp stunner sends Zagreb into Last 16Article
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GROUP A REVIEW: Croatian title holders HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb advanced into the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout stages with a quite incredible goal on the buzzer, which also means Naturhouse La Rioja’s face a nervous wait

Last-gasp stunner sends Zagreb into Last 16  

It is only fitting that the thrilling contest between Zagreb and La Rioja produced a heart-stopping climax in which the home side clawed out a priceless win thanks to an unbelievable goal when it seemed the match was destined for a stalemate.

The result sealed Zagreb’s passage into the last 16 and also ensured a third-place finish for the Croatian outfit in a fiercely competitive group, while La Rioja must now hope that Meshkov Brest do not spring an upset at PSG on Saturday if the Spanish side are to keep their fate in their own hands.


HC PPD Zahreb vs Naturhouse La Rioja 31:30 (16:13)

This rip-roaring encounter with so much at stake will surely go down in VELUX EHF Champions League history as one of the most dramatic in the competition’s illustrious record books.

When it seemed La Rioja had done enough to hand Zagreb their first home defeat of the season, the home side first equalised and then netted a mind-boggling winner on the buzzer when Bosnian Dusko Celica unleashed a vicious free throw from almost the halfway line, which was deflected by the wall and beat goalkeeper Jorge Gomez Lite.

The Zagreb Arena, subdued for much of the second half after La Rioja turned a three-goal halftime deficit into a two-goal lead, erupted in joy while the visitors could hardly believe their eyes as a cruel twist of fortune denied them at least a share of the spoils.

Following a balanced start, Zagreb’s Montenegrin coach Veselin Vujovic called a time-out with the teams tied 5:5 in the eighth minute and his vociferous instructions to his players for tougher defence paid instant dividends.

Led by veteran winger Zlatko Horvat and explosive right back Luka Sebetic, Zagreb produced a 7:2 run which put them firmly in the driving seat, as goalkeeper Filip Ivic also pulled off a string of superb saves.

But the resurgent visitors cut the deficit by halftime and then conjured a 4:0 run early in the second half to turn the match on its head.

Zagreb battled hard to swing the contest their way again but La Rioja used both flanks to devastating effect, gaining the upper hand to carve out a 27:25 advantage in the closing stages.

Roared on by their fans, Zagreb used Horvat’s vast experience and the youthful vigour of his understudies to turn the tide once again and nose ahead 29:28 before the Spanish outfit replied with two quickfire goals as victory seemed to be in their grasp.

However, a final twist put the icing on the cake for Zagreb and sent La Rioja into sheer despair.

The home side forced yet another equaliser before the visitors wasted their last possession with five seconds left and a draw seemed imminent although one of Zagreb’s players was fouled just inside the La Rioja half on the buzzer.

But the towering Celica had other ideas, hurling a desperate shot at goal from around 15 metres and the ball somehow founds its way into the back of the net past the bewildered Lite.

Zlatko Horvat and Josip Valcic led Zagreb with six goals each while Luis Jimenez was La Rioja’s top scorer with five.

"A draw would have probably been the right result for this match. It was an amazing way to finish the match, I personaly did not believe we'll make it. We committed too many technical mistakes it was almost costly. We're now in the Last 16 and it is great, great way to enter it despite of the match which was not so good considering our performance," said Zagreb's coach Veselin Vujovic.

"We knew it would be great to take points here in Zagreb but we did not do it which puts us in a bit tougher situation. Despite of the loss this was a good season for us so far. Speaking of this match, we were not able to adapt to Zagreb's defence fast enough and in defence we were simply not playing good enough especially in final 15 minutes," said Rioja's coach Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez.



TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br