Vujovic: “I want to see the limits of this young Zagreb team”Article
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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The three-time winner of the European top flight, Zagreb coach and former Barcelona player, legendary Veselin Vujovic, speaks for the

Vujovic: “I want to see the limits of this young Zagreb team”

There are not many games in modern handball, more deserving of the label ‘classic’ than HC PPD Zagreb versus FC Barcelona. Today, it may not be as tightly contested affair as in the 1990’s, but the rivalry still remains.

Since winning the first Europe’s elite competition trophy in 1990/91, with Veselin Vujovic and Xavi Pascual in the team FC Barcelona went to win eight Champions League titles, and establish themselves as the leading force in today’s handball.

The role of favourites will undoubtedly evade the two-time winners of the Champions Cup (forerunner of the EHF Champions League) Zagreb, but this season taught us that no team is the clear-cut favourite in the Arena Zagreb.

This mouth-watering tie has got even more flavour, with the two former teammates facing each other on the opposing benches.

‘Blaugrana’ tactician Xavi Pascual, arrives in Zagreb with his star-laden team in a bid to avoid an upset, before they take the game to Palau Blaugrana.

While Zagreb hopes rely on the 15.200 loud supporters in the sold-out arena, and the man who brought Barcelona their first Champions Cup title in 1991. This Zagreb side is playing their most successful VELUX EHF Champions League season since 2011/12. In which aspect of the game Zagreb play this season do you consider your work most visible?

Veselin Vujovic: Many pieces of the puzzle came together this season. We have the highest attendance in the Champions League. Many people in Zagreb say this kind of interest in handball hasn’t been seen in the last 20 years.

But I have to admit, the team and me had a bit of a strange start when I came to Zagreb. They knew about me (as a player and a coach), but they didn’t know me (up close), and didn’t know what to expect – but we have all reacted very well to each other, and even surpassed the initial expectations.

I always bring my kind of temperament to every team I coach. There’s a special kind of flavour when I am coaching. I like to have a lot influence on the team. This team is quite similar to what I am as a person. The temperament, the spirit, the heart – it is all there.

Before my arrival, many players were concerned playing against aggressive, physically strong teams. I have been able to bring out that much desired aggressiveness in them to match those teams. Here you are, playing against your former team, and a well known nemesis of Zagreb, having lost three Champions League finals against them. What were your first thoughts after the draw?

Veselin Vujovic: Before the draw, I knew it would be extremely difficult to overcome any of our potential matchups. Naturally, you cannot be expecting to overcome the likes of Veszprem, Kiel or Barcelona. But you can challenge them.

I relish the chance to test Barcelona. I often like saying: “You can never lose a match before it has been played”. I firmly believe anyone can be defeated, but I’ve never had any problems losing against the better team. I will be the first to congratulate them on the win, but they must do well to earn it first. The fans in the sold out Arena Zagreb will be expecting another classic, but in reality the situation is quite different to the glory days of 1990’s. Zagreb lost some of their best players in the summer, and you have a fairly young team to play against one of the odds-on favourites for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 ...

Veselin Vujovic: I want to see the limits of this young Zagreb team. I wish to see how far can they go, and what they can accomplish right now. Right now, we have the same chance of reaching the FINAL4 as any other quarter-finalist, including Barcelona. Many teams have surrendered, before even having a chance to play against Barcelona. We are not easily intimidated.

I want to win the first leg. It doesn’t matter by how many - even one goal will suffice. Then, we will go to Barcelona as winners, and see how this star-laden team would react to that. Would it be fair to say that this first leg is going to be won from the bench, as much as from the court itself? Do you think that tactics can be the decisive difference between success and failure in this tie?

Veselin Vujovic: From the tactical point of view, it is a very interesting tie - we concede the fewest goals in the Champions League, while Barcelona score the most.

They have a plethora of quality and experience in their rotation, while I don’t chop and change too much. All my players are able to contribute in all stages of the game. The only rotation I have is that I sometimes put Tonci Valcic in, during the defensive phase.

It is difficult for anyone to even play against the team such as Barca, but I feel Zagreb can play and win against them. I wouldn’t say I am the one to make all the difference, but it surely is an advantage having me on board. The match against Barcelona sees you reunited with Xavi Pascual, your former teammate, with whom you have won the Champions Cup title in 1991. What is your opinion on Xavi Pascual as a teammate, and today as Barcelona coach?

Veselin Vujovic: Pasqui is great person, and a really multi-talented sportsman. He was a very intelligent, quality goalkeeper, and a great professional. The fact that he was an assistant to Manolo Cadenas, whom I consider the best Spanish coach, speaks in volumes.

He (Xavi Pascual) is a home-grown, Catalan coach who fits in well in Barca’s concept. He knows what kind of handball Barcelona need to play, and is doing a very good job coaching such a team He’s got a great rhythm with them. Having been Barcelona player from 1988 to 1993, can you draw any comparison to Barcelona team then and now?

Veselin Vujović: I would say they are quite a bit different. The Barca from 1991 was more handballing, far more creative and more attractive to watch. We had the likes of Masip, Urdangarin and Barufet was in goal – we knew how to play top quality, exciting and efficient handball.

But the current team is a mean machine – they play less attractive, and more physical. They are a ruthless powerhouse that has got both length and strength. They have superstars like Karabatic, but they also have powerful specialists like Viran Moros. They simply steamroll over any opponent. But even the best of teams have their weakness. As the former Barcelona player, do you see any liability your HC PPD Zagreb side can exploit come today’s match?

Veselin Vujovic: No team is without flaws, and so is Barcelona. However, some flaws are more obvious than the others. The problem is, they don’t have the opportunity to play the difficult matches.

The most obvious one, is that Barca almost always tend to solve those difficult, tightly contested situations individually, instead of utilising the whole team. That doesn’t sound like a particular weakness, but smart teams and coaches have ways of exploiting that.

Their attack shifts into much less perilous when Gurbindo is playing on the right back instead of Lazarov. They don’t threaten the goal as much that way. They are also used to playing their defence with great depth, but tend to leave the open space for the line player to exploit. Your results in all competitions this season give you every reason to be confident in your game. Speaking about your this VELUX EHF Champions League tie, what do you intend to throw at Barcelona, come the first whistle in the Zagreb Arena?

Veselin Vujovic: We have an exceptional team here in Zagreb. It’s made of the very best that Croatian handball has to offer.

Our advantage is that we are stable and solid in defending, and have a variety of ways to play our defence. We also have the versatility to attack any defence. We know Barcelona will play 6-0 and 5-1 at times. We have a very good back court rotation, excellent line player options and a great collective strength. Moreover, we impose ourselves onto any opponent as a team, not individuals. And what, if any, are your potential weaknesses?
Veselin Vujovic: There are simply no weak links. Every player is every bit as good as the one next to him. The hardest part of my job is to select the team, knowing I have to leave out some of these earnest, hard-working guys.

Our one weakness, depending how you see, it is that we might still be a little green. But, we have a big heart. In fact, I would much rather pick a green banana than an overripe one – knowing it will become perfect given some time.

TEXT: Nemanja Savic / br