Underdogs hoping to make surprisesArticle
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LAST 16 PREVIEW - PART 2: As usual, the group winners appear as favourites in the Last 16 ties against the fourth placed teams.

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Underdogs hoping to make surprises

It is almost always the same story in the Last 16 ties of the VELUX EHF Champions League, where group winners meet fourth placed teams. The group winners are usually obvious favourites, and the examples of fourth placed teams sending group winners out of the tournament are few. Still, also this season, the number fours believe in the chance to make surprises.

Naturhouse La Rioja (ESP) vs MKB-MVM Veszprém (HUN)
Saturday 14 March, 16.15 local time, live on ehfTV

Head-to-heads in the EC: no previous encounters

Last season, Veszprém made it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4, and the team of the traditional Hungarian club has not exactly become weaker in the meantime. The team under Spanish head coach Carlos Ortega and with three Spanish players (Chema Rodriguez, Carlos Ruesga, Cristian Ugalde) proved their skills in the group phase, where they became clear winners of Group C, only losing two points along the way in a group which included teams such as Rhein-Neckar Löwen and HC Vardar.

Over two matches against Spain’s number two who qualified from fourth position in Group A, Veszprém are, of course, also favourites, but the question is what La Rioja can do in the first match in the Palacio de los Deportes de la Rioja on Saturday afternoon.

Last 16 newcomers Rioja will heavily rely on experience of Juanin Garcia.

Anyway, the Veszprém coach is cautious.

“La Rioja is a very fast and quick team, and one of the best teams on fast breaks, so we must be very careful with them. Another main reason why we respect them so much is that they are tactically very clever in their offence. We will start the preparation against them on Wednesday in order
to make ourselves 100% ready for the weekend. I am sure it will be a hard match,” Carlos Ortega tells ehfCL.com.

La Rioja coach Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez also sees the fast breaks as a key to success for his team.

“We will be playing against one the best defences and one of the best attacks in Europe. The key for us is to play a good match in the defence, and get some fast breaks in order to get the easy goals. Concentration in the first match can give us a chance ahead of the decisive match in Veszprém,” Jesus Gonzalez Fernandez tells ehfCL.com.

Before eliminating Ademar Leon in the 2012/13 Last 16 Veszprem had a horrible knockout record with the Spanish teams. In the previous seasons the perennial Hungarian champions were ousted by ASOBAL teams four straight times (FC Barcelona twice, Ciudad Real, Ademar Leon).

Montpellier Agglomeration HB (FRA) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Sunday 15 March, 17.00 local time, live on ehfTV

Head-to-heads in the EC: no previous encounters

Montpellier have at least one thing to show for them that Kielce do not have. The French runners-up have won the EHF Champions League before, while the ambitious Polish champions are still waiting for their first title in the prestigious tournament.

However, Montpellier’s Champions League triumph was as far back as 2003, so the current team cannot base much on that historical event when receiving Kielce in the Arena Montpellier on late Sunday afternoon.

As the only team in the group phase, Kielce went through their group – Group C – without losing a single point and emulating the feat from
the 2012/13 season, when they reached the VELUX EHF FINAL4 and finished third.

Furthermore, they travel to Southern France with a fresh 30:27 win in the Polish league against their eternal rivals Orlen Wisla Plock from Tuesday.

Montpellier finished fourth in Group C with eight points, which was the second lowest number of points of all the fourth placed teams in the group phase.

Still, it was behind as prominent teams as Veszprem, HC Vardar and Rhein-Neckar Löwen, so maybe it is too early to write off Montpellier, whose large and enthusiastic home crowd may help them get in a good position before going to Poland next weekend.

The double-header will see an interesting reunion of Kielce’s playmaker Uros Zorman with five of his fellow Slovenians plying their trade in the rivals’ camp - Dragan Gajic, Vid Kavticnik, Jure Dolenec, Matej Gaber and Borut Mackovsek.

Furthermore, Montpellier’s goalkeeper Venio Losert will meet his former teammates as he was on board of Vive during their trip to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 two years ago.

Aalborg Handball (DEN) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)
Sunday 15 March, 16.50 local time, live on ehfTV

Head-to-heads in the EC: 0-0-2 (42:60) 0:4

The meeting between Aalborg and Barcelona will be a remake of the Last 16 in the Champions League last season. On that occasion, Barcelona won both legs – 29:22 in Aalborg and 31:20 in the Palau Blaugrana.

Aalborg are well aware that the Spanish top team are favourites again.

“To our young players, it will be a great chance to measure themselves against some of the best players in the world. To us, the success criteria will be to find out, of we really are as far from a world top team like Barcelona, as the experts say we are. Of course, our mission will be to prove that we are not!” Aalborg coach Jesper Jensen tells ehfCL.com.

Barcelona coach Xavi Pascual expresses respect for the current number two in the Danish league, though.

“It’s always difficult to play away in Europe, especially in the Last 16. We will have to be totally focused in that game. Aalborg have a different team compared to the one we met last year, but still a strong team,” Pascual tells ehfCL.com.

“They have played good handball during the season, and I am sure we will have a great team in front of us, and that it will be a tough game for FC Barcelona in Denmark,” Xavi Pascual adds.

The last 16 trip to Denmark is becoming a tradition for the record winners of the European top flight as they head for Jutland peninsula for the third time in a row. In the 2012/13 season they eliminated Bjerringbro-Silkeborg.

One year earlier they were knocked out from the competition by another Danish team AG Copenhagen in the quarter-finals.

SG Flensburg-Handewitt (GER) vs THW Kiel (GER)
Sunday 15 March, 19.30 local time, live on ehfTV

Head-to-heads in the EC: 3-1-4 (226:229) 7:9

One out of two national derbies in the Last 16 is throwing off in the Flens Arena Sunday night. But not just that. The meeting between Flensburg and Kiel are a classic in German handball. A local derby between eternal rivals situated less than 90 kilometer from each other.

A tale of two cities – Kiel with a population of 243,000 and much smaller Flensburg with less than 90,000. But it is even more than this. It is also a remake of the final at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 last season. An unforgettable final in the LANXESS arena of Cologne, in which Flensburg, the underdogs, defeated big brother Kiel 30:28.

Now they meet again, and once again Flensburg are underdogs, as their experienced goalkeeper Mattias Andersson realises.

“Of course we are underdogs, and even more so than in the final last year. In the meantime, we have lost our goalkeeper Soren Rasmussen who played a great part in us winning the FINAL4 last year. Furthermore, Holger Glandorf is injured, Jacob Heinl is ill, and Jim Gottffridsson is injured. They are all players we have lost compared to when we won the Champions League,” Mattias Andersson tells ehfCL.com.

“Kiel have a much broader team than we do, and we have the return game away, but of course nothing is impossible, and I am sure we can play two good matches against Kiel, then we will see how far it reaches.

“I would not say what a good result in the first match would be. We are taking one match at a time, so now we will play the first match, and then we will have to see, how we get on from there,” says Mattias Andersson.

TEXT: Peter Bruun / br