Giant-killing Zagreb face toughest test yet against BarcelonaArticle
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QUARTER-FINAL PREVIEW: The Croatian champions will once again be underdogs as they aim to upset yet another European giant and reach the VELUX EHF FINAL4 against the odds

Giant-killing Zagreb face toughest test yet against Barcelona

The VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-finals begin with what most pundits expect to be a David-versus-Goliath clash between HC PPD Zagreb and FC Barcelona, who meet in the Croatian capital on Thursday in the first leg of their double-header.

But despite being the overwhelming favourites to reach the season-ending VELUX EHF FINAL4 in Cologne, Barcelona will take nothing for granted against a side who have eliminated more fancied KIF Kolding Kobenhavn in the previous round after impressive home wins over Kiel and PSG in the group phase.

VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-final Leg 1
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)

Thursday 9 April, 20:10 hrs local time live on ehfTV

Handball fans around Europe, beware and behold as we have a potential classic on our hands.

Zagreb face their match of the season and undoubtedly the biggest challenge their talented outfit could have asked for when the Croatian title holders take on their old nemesis Barcelona.

These two kept running into each other time and again in Europe’s premier club competition but only Barcelona have happy memories from their historic encounters, having beaten Zagreb in three successive finals in the mid 1990s when the Spanish side reigned supreme.

It was a glorious spell for Barca, who won five consecutive titles from 1996 to 2000, with the three victories against Zagreb sandwiched between their first triumph against compatriots Elgorriaga Bidasoa and the fifth when they beat THW Kiel.

Boasting a stack of European stars who strolled through the group phase as well as the Last 16 against Danish side Aalborg, Barcelona will head into the two-leg clash as odds-on favourites.

They also enjoyed a perfect warm-up, twice beating compatriots Naturhouse La Rioja in domestic competitions.

A 35:29 win sent Barcelona to the last four of the Spanish Cup before they completed the double with a 38:28 defeat of La Rioja which put the Catalan giants one win away from retaining the league title.

Zagreb, on the other hand, enjoyed mixed fortunes at the regional SEHA League final tournament, where they finished third with a 26:23 win over Macedonian rivals Vardar after a dramatic 25:24 semi-final defeat by hosts and eventual winners MKB-MVM Veszprém.

Apart from a youthful pool of success-hungry talents, Zagreb will also bank on the vast experience of their Montenegrin coach Veselin Vujovic – a former Barcelona player who won Europe’s premier club competition with the Spanish giants in 1991.

Fiery and always eager to speak his mind, Vujovic revealed that the clash against Barcelona could not come soon enough for Zagreb.

“Our chance lies in Barcelona not being used to playing too many tough matches,” Vujovic said in an interview to the Balkan Handball website.

“They are used to winning by huge margins in domestic competitions and also had an easy run in the group phase, but we will see how they respond to a team determined to beat them.”

“We have nothing to lose and everything to win in front of 15,000 fans roaring on my team, who will be up against some of their childhood idols.”

“These 60 minutes in the Zagreb Arena will be worth more to them than an entire season of league handball and sky will be the limit if we manage to knock out Barcelona,” said Vujovic.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor