Classy Barcelona edge valiant ZagrebArticle
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QUARTER-FINAL REVIEW: VELUX EHF Champions League favourites FC Barcelona earned a hard-fought win over HC PPD Zagreb in the first leg of their quarter-final clash in front of a sold-out arena in the Croatian capital

Classy Barcelona edge valiant Zagreb

The eagerly awaited classic between Zagreb and Barcelona in their quarter-final first leg went pretty much according to script, with the Spanish giants carving out a precious two-goal advantage ahead of the return fixture thanks to a deep world-class roster.

The Croatian champions played their hearts out in front of a passionate home crowd but suffered their first home defeat of the season against the most resourceful of rivals, with goalkeeper Danijel Saric producing a truly tremendous performance between the posts.

VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-final Leg 1
HC PPD Zagreb (CRO) vs FC Barcelona (ESP) 23:25 (10:14)

Having beaten THW Kiel and Paris Saint-Germain Handball in the group phase and then KIF Kolding Kobenhavn in the Last 16 in their impressive arena, Zagreb duly hoped the venue would also prove to be an impregnable fortress for FC Barcelona.

But a scintillating performance by one of Europe’s most feared outfits shattered their dreams as the Spanish giants took the upper hand midway through the first half after an even start, with their coach Xavi Pasqual delivering a tactical masterclass.

The teams were level 5:5 in a fast-paced and physical start before the visitors engineered what turned out to be a crucial 4:0 run, as Pasqual outwitted his former Barcelona teammate Vujovic by deploying Icelandic winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson as an extra line player from set plays in attack.

Sigurdsson was also clinical from trademark fast breaks while France playmaker Nikola Karabatic pulled all the strings for Barcelona, dishing out assists like confetti and driving in unstoppable shots from the nine-metre line.

Barcelona simply took Zagreb to school in the opening period, playing aggressive defence without a single two-minute suspension and thus confined the home side to bursts of individual skill by right back Luka Stapancic, the game’s top scorer with nine goals.

Barcelona’s 37-year old goalkeeper Danijel Saric mesmerised Zagreb with a string of dazzling saves and Filip Ivic, 15 years his junior, also stood out at the other end to keep the home team afloat throughout the fascinating contest.

Roared on by 15,200 vociferous home supporters, Zagreb produced a late flurry which reduced the deficit to just one goal (23:24) in the closing stages before right wing Victor Tomas vanquished their hopes of salvaging a draw with a swivelling low shot in the dying seconds.

Karabatic led Barcelona with six goals, Tomas and Macedonian right back Kiril Lazarov added five while Sigurdsson chipped in with four to underline the depth of Barcelona’s roster.

Saric finished with 13 saves and there is little doubt that Barcelona have one foot in the VELUX EHF FINAL4 after displaying uncanny steel and resolve against the season’s surprise package.

Lazarov’s accomplishment provisionally lifted him to the pinnacle of the top scorer’s chart with a whopping 90 goals, but Veszprem’s Momir Ilic (86) will have a chance to reclaim the driving seat when the Hungarian giants visit Paris Saint-Germain Handball on Saturday.

The result also stretched Barcelona’s impressive record against Zagreb to 15 wins from 17 games, with the Croatian side managing just one victory and a draw against their perennial tormentors.       

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cor