French derby in the spotlight as Zagreb target another upsetArticle
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LAST 16 PREVIEW - PART 1: PSG will start as favourites against compatriots Dunkerque in their VELUX EHF Champions League last 16 double-header while the Croatian title holders aim to clinch their first quarterfinal berth since 2012.

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French derby in the spotlight as Zagreb target another upset

The business end of Europe’s premier club handball competition offers eight fascinating two-leg ties featuring the continent’s top teams who will battle it out in the last 16 for quarter-final tickets.

The first round of the knockout stage offers two local derbies, with holders SG Flensburg-Handewitt taking on fellow German rivals THW Kiel while Paris Saint-Germain Handball meet Dunkerque HB Grand Littoral in a mouth-watering all-French affair.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen, who somewhat surprisingly finished third in their group behind MKB-MVM Veszprem and HC Vardar, face a tricky encounter with Hungary’s MOL-Pick Szeged.

Croatian champions HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb impressed with a third-place finish in their section, beating both Kiel and PSG at home to underline just how much of a threat they will pose to KIF Kolding Kobenhavn after the Danish outfit claimed the runners-up spot in Group B.

There is also very little separating HC Vardar and Polish side Orlen Wisla Plock, who beat Flensburg to third place in that group and avoided a last 16 clash with mighty Kiel.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Friday March 13, 19.00 local time, live on ehfTV

Historic head-to-heads in the EC: 2-0-0 (63:52) 4:0

Although they secured a third-place finish in their section quite comfortably, Rhein-Neckar Lowen flattered to deceive as they suffered four defeats suggesting that they face a tough task against Szeged in the last 16.

Two losses to second-placed HC Vardar indicated RNL’s frailties against top quality opposition, while they managed a win and a defeat against group winners MKB-MVM Veszprem.

The German side will be buoyed by their current domestic form, as they are tied at the top of the Bundesliga with defending champions THW Kiel on 44 points from 25 games each. RNL enjoyed a sound introduction to their clash with Szeged as they celebrated a 31:23 German league win at TSV Hannover-Burgdorf.

Szeged, who finished a distant second in their section behind KS Vive Tauron Kielce but well ahead of third-placed Dunkerque HB Grand Littoral, will be concerned with their recent form as they scraped only one point from their last three matches in Group D.

Furthermore they will not miss only the injured Spanish playmaker Nico Mindegia, but in the first leg also Vladimir Vranjes, who has to serve out the second game of his two-match ban.

In Zsolt Balogh and Slovenian Dean Bombac, Szeged have a reliable scoring duo who have netted 104 goals between them, while RNL’s top scorers Uwe Gensheimer and Alexander Petersson combined for a total of 88.

"Last year we won the EHF Cup in Berlin and now we have a chance to prove ourselves in Germany. We analysed the last two games of Löwen, we know we will be facing a very tough opponent but our faith is strong. I know from Rajko Prodanovic, who played for Löwen last year, that we are going to play in an amazing atmosphere in Mannheim," Szeged's coach Juan Carlos Pastor said.

"The bull and the lion meet up. We saw them play very different games so it is hard to prepare against the German team, who were the ones we wanted to avoid in the draw. It is a huge challenge for us but we want to go through," Szeged's captain Attila Vadkerti said.

Lions have totalled more goals than Szeged (302:276) in the 10 group matches while the Hungarian side boasts a tougher defence, having conceded 264 to the German side’s 282.

But stats may not count for much when these two teams take centre stage, hence their fans can expect a close double-header likely to go down to the wire.

Dunkerque HB Grand Littoral (FRA) vs Paris Saint-Germain Hanbdall (FRA)
Saturday 14 March, 17.00 local time, live on ehfTV

Historic head-to-heads in the EC: no previous encounters

The odds will be stacked against Dunkerque in this all-French clash, with an expensively assembled PSG side the clear favourites to go through although the two teams’ track record might suggest otherwise.

Paris Saint-Germain Handball have won 21 games against Dunkerque, who were victorious 18 times while one game ended in a draw when these two clashed since PSG started competing in the 1996-97 season.

Although PSG qualified comfortably from Group A, it was not all plain sailing for them as a rampant start of four successive wins was followed by several hick-ups.

They lost both games to THW Kiel and were also stunned by HC PPD Zagreb, with the three defeats underlining the defensive weaknesses of a squad packed with attacking talent.

Given that Dunkerque boast the fourth-strongest defence in the VELUX EHF Champions League this season, PSG will need to come out with all guns blazing if they are to justify their billing of being one of the competition’s favourites to reach the VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne.

In Thierry Omeyer they still have one of the best goalkeepers in the world while Dane Mikkel Hansen is the pack leader in attack and his shooting prowess will be essential for PSG’s bid to reach the last eight and thus at least emulate last season’s accomplishment.

If current domestic form is anything to go by, Dunkerque will need a massive improvement as they are fifth in the French first division seven points behind second-placed PSG and 10 adrift of leaders Montpellier.

Most certainly, they will hope to reproduce some of their Champions League group stage performances where they finished third after an almighty dogfight in the home straight with also qualified Aalborg Handball as well as eliminated HC Motor Zaporozhye and Kadetten Schaffhausen.

Dunkerque clinched their berth with a pivotal 29:25 win over Schaffhausen in the final round. A balanced effort in which eight players shared the attacking workload fairly evenly will once again be required if they are to upset PSG and give themselves a fighting chance in the return leg in Paris.

HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN)  
Saturday 14 March, 18.00 local time, live on ehfTV

Head-to-heads in the EC: 3-0-1 (105:96) 6:2

Having seen Zagreb beat the likes of Kiel and PSG in their impressive group stage campaign on home court, KIF will need no further warning how big a challenge they face when they visit the Croatian side in the first leg of what should be an absorbing last 16 tie.

Zagreb warmed up for the clash with a 45:29 whitewash of Serbian rivals Radnicki Kragujevac in the regional SEHA League, with the venue switched to the Croatian capital so that Veselin Vujovic’s youthful outfit had more time to prepare for the clash against Kobenhavn.

“We wish to thank Radnicki for agreeing to play in Zagreb instead of Kragujevac, the venue change was very important for us in order to get ready for the last 16 VELUX EHF Champions League meeting with Kobenhavn,” Vujovic told Croatian media ahead of his team’s emphatic win against Radnicki.

It underlined Zagreb’s potent attack which fired on all cylinders although captain Zlatko Horvat and Tonci Valcic were rested.

Kobenhavn, who lived up to their fans’ expectations as they comfortably clinched a last 16 berth by finishing runners-up behind their section’s winners Barcelona in the group stage, also displayed strength in all departments.

They had the second-highest scoring record and the second-best defence in Group B, having blown away holders Flensburg 35:21 on home court and also held Barcelona to a 27:27 draw.

Buoyed by the arrival of Icelandic handball icon Olafur Stefansson, Kobehavn will start as favourites and their coach Aron Kristjansson made it no secret he was delighted with his new acquisition.

“We are extremely pleased that Stefansson will be available for the first leg against Zagreb on Saturday,” Kristjansson told the club’s official website (

“He has an incredible routine to his game which will be much-needed in Zagreb, where we face a very tough match. Olafur can make a huge difference.”

Goalkeeper Kasper Hvidt added: “It took him no time to understand how we play because he knows his handball and that was so obvious in training.”

Orlen Wisla Plock (POL) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday 14 March, 20.45 local time, live on ehfTV

Historic head-to-heads in the EC: no previous encounters

This is probably one of the most evenly balanced last 16 ties as Wisla and Vardar had similar paths into the knockout stage.

Wisla enjoyed an impressive home straight in their section, having earned successive wins over Besiktas MOGAZ HT, Barcelona, Alingsas HK and finally Flensburg to finish third and secure an intriguing clash with Vardar.

The Macedonian side were comfortable runners-up in Group C with 15 points from 10 games, behind MKB-MVM Veszprem and somewhat surprisingly ahead of Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

Boasting a myriad of imports from across Europe, Wisla will undoubtedly also rely on some of their Polish stalwarts who impressed with a third-place finish in January’s world championship in Qatar, notably line player Kamil Syprzak.

The robust 23-year old is a handful for any defence and apart from scoring 37 goals in the group stage, he keeps creating space for the backcourt and wingers with his quick and unpredictable movement.

Wisla’s dress rehearsal for the match with Vardar was a 30:27 defeat at traditional rivals Kielce in their Polish league derby. Although they suffered yet another loss to their bitter foes, Wisla will be encouraged by a decent performance and a 12:11 first-half lead.

Vardar’s Spanish coach Raul Gonzalez said he was looking forward to locking horns with his compatriot and close friend Manuel Cadenas.

“He is a very good friend of mine and I am sure there can be no secrets between the two teams because we know each other so well,” Gonzalez told Macedonian newspaper Utrinski Vesnik in an interview shortly before the first leg.

“Unlike in the group stage, there is no room for error in the knockout rounds and we know that it’s going to be a delicately balanced tie. Backed by our fantastic home fans though, anything is possible.”

In Timur Dibirov Vardar have the third-highest scorer in the competition with 69 goals and there is no doubt the bulk of their hopes will rest on the speedy Russian left wing.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br