My head on a chopping blockArticle
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BLOG: ehfTV commentator Tom O'Brannagain is ready for a double portion this weekend as he expects a fall of Szeged and Vardar.

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My head on a chopping block

Roll up! Roll up for the magical mystery tour!
Step right this way!

Yes that's right! The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away. This weekend we bring you on a whirlwind tour of the last 16 of the VELUX EHF CL that will leave your head spinning. My good friend David Bregazzi will lead the dance at KIF and for my part, I will ease you through the highs and lows in Skopje and Szeged.

This blog a BOGOF for want of a better word. “Buy one get one free”. So rather than boring everyone with two blogs and that picture that is only short of a “tooth flash”, here in all its glory is my take on the two matches that occurred last weekend between RNL and Szeged and Plock and Vardar.

It's the beauty of sport that you never know what can happen. The week before the round of 16, the panel got to air its views on who would win and lose. I got one of the above matches absolutely right and the other completely wrong.

Plock played Vardar and won by a stunning six goals. Stunning? Not in my book. I called this game when all and sundry told me I was completely off the boil. But I had been in Plock. I knew the atmosphere. I had seen this team grow and develop and sometimes you just have a feeling in your bones.

Manolo has whipped a team together from a group of individuals. He plays small tactics of one against one and two against two and he has done this since the beginning of his tenure. And guess what? They do it really well. They fight for each other and they never give in.

Home wins against Barca and Flensburg are testament to that. Now you don't beat Barcelona by luck. You do it by cunning and heart. Nothing else will do.

It is said that: “Cunning is the art of concealing our own defects and discovering the weaknesses of others”.

If that is the case, then Manolo had it all figured out against Vardar. For what happened is that a team beat a group of individuals. Vardar may have a coach that embraces the team, but his team doesn't seem to have heard his words. Talented individuals all, they depend on Dujshebaev, Karacic and Dibirov to come up with moments of magic.

And if you watch closely, they are rarely from any team play. They are moments of genius that only players of rare talent can achieve. Add to that the over-reliance on Sterbik in goal and you have a recipe for disaster. So Plock, the team, beat Vardar, because they do the simple things better and don't rely, solely on moments of magic.

However, there is light for the Vardar fans. If Plock is the first circle of hell for an opposition team, then the Jane Sandanski is the ninth. Never before have I heard such a cacophony of noise anywhere in the handball world. It makes the very ground shake and your knees with it.

A six-goal defecit is basically the home team scoring one more every ten minutes and that is eminently doable. The right back position in defence is still an area of weakness for the home team and sometimes Dujshebaev looks like a costly extravagance. He is needed in attack, but with Abutovic and Rastvortsev coming on in defence, another change just isn't possible.

Too much was made of the Vardar victory in Mannheim and perhaps a little wake-up call was all they needed to progress. I wouldn't be pinning my hopes on it, but then again, you never know. Syprzak will be pivotal to the hopes of Plock, but he cannot let his heart rule his head or an early shower might be in order.

The second game pits Szeged at home against RNL. The first game was turgid. It was one of the worst games of handball I have ever watched. It had no flow, it was bitty, it was stop-start and it was disjointed. The defensive system that Jacobsen employed was torn apart, time and again, by a rampant Szeged.

They must have thought all their birthdays came together. As a team, they are not blessed with jump shooters and the space afforded them was downright criminal. The RNL defence was all over the place, literally.

At more than one stage Petersson was following his player all the way to the left back position and more often that not Kneer was the sacrificial lamb, being left one on one in the centre. Landin was conspicuous by his absence and had another game to forget. The good news is that when RNL went to a 6-0 then they actually took the lead, but inexplicably went back to the open, aggressive defence.

There is no doubt in my mind, that when Guardiola returns, properly, that this team will have the steel. Kneer just looks better with Gedeon at his side. In fact the entire defence looks great. That then allows Schmid and Myrhol to do their thing in attack only.

Szeged lead by four and Pastor will have spent the week poring over problems, particularly when his team faced the 6-0. He will need a huge game from Sierra and Wyszomirski, because they will decide the game. If Landin has “one of his better games” then I see no chance for Szeged.

Whereas I called the Plock game correctly, I was completely wrong about this one. My caveat is that I said with a full squad, then RNL are better. They didn't have one last time and if they do, this time, I see them progressing.

However, I underestimated this Szeged team last year in Berlin and I do so at my peril again. But you got to go with your gut and my gut is telling me RNL. Even though Szeged is a tough place for any team to visit.

I have probably made no friends after this piece, but you know, sometimes you just have to say it like it is.

So here's my head on a chopping block.

It'll be glorious failure for both Vardar and Szeged and please have my hat ready for eating with a little salt on the side just in case.

TEXT: Tom O Brannagain, ehfTV commentator