Saric and Karabatic secure Barcelona’s eleventh finalArticle
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MATCH REVIEW: The VELUX EHF Champions League's most successful club advance to another final with a hard-fought 33:28 defeat of Kielce in the first semi-final.

Saric and Karabatic secure Barcelona’s eleventh final

Nine saves in 20 minutes from goalkeeper Danijel Saric and an outstanding eight-goal performance from Nikola Karabatic paved the way for FC Barcelona to reach a historic 11th VELUX EHF Champions League Final.

The seven-time winners beat Vive Tauron Kielce 33:28 in the first semi-final in Cologne to advance to their fourth final at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 following on from 2010, 2011, 2013.

However, the result did not reflect the narrow nature of their success over a spirited Kielce, in an entertaining contest enjoyed by almost 20,000 fans.

Even seven goals from Karol Bielecki were not enough for the Polish side, as was the case in 2013 when they were beaten in their first-ever Champions League semi-final against Barcelona by the same margin (23:28).

"It was a great game. We had to fight the whole game, in the end our experience and our goalkeeper decided the match. I am proud on my team and our fans," said Karabatic.

By netting seven times, Kiril Lazarov moved to the top of the competition's scoring charts with 106 goals – but Veszprem's Momir Ilic, currently sitting on 101 goals, could climb to the summit in the second semi-final.

Semi-final 1: FC Barcelona (ESP) vs Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) 33:28 (16:14)

It was no surprise that a Spaniard scored the first goal of the 2015 VELUX EHF FINAL4, but it was not one of the eight Spaniards in the Barcelona squad.

Instead Julen Aguinagalde struck first for Kielce, who - even more surprisingly - were playing without their defensive stalwart Piotr Grabarczyk.

But this was the last time the Polish side led.

Barcelona forged 3:2 ahead in comfortable fashion, fuelled by Kiril Lazarov's 100th goal of the season - and Barcelona’s 7,000th EHF Champions League goal in club history - scored by team captain Victor Tomas to make it 8:4 in the 14th minute.

And if the Catalan side, who counted on the agile and dependable goalkeeping of Gonzalo Perez de Vargas, had not missed so many clear chances, the game could have been settled early on.

Despite great support from the “yellow fan army” in the stands, Kielce failed to reach their regular level in attack during the first 20 minutes, struggling to find gaps in Barcelona's defensive wall – except one: unstoppable line player Aguinagalde.

Suddenly and without visible reason, Barcelona's engine stuttered. Karol Bielecki led Kielce in his signature style, and at 14:13, the Polish champions even had the chance to equalise again. In the meantime Barca coach Xavi Pascual was also forced to adapt his defensive strategy, as current World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatic was suspended for two minutes for the second time in the first 26 minutes.

But still his team held a slender two-goal cushion at the break.

The Polish side could not pick up where they left off before half-time, however. Having failed in their first four attacks they allowed Barcelona to create their first five-goal advantage at 19:14. Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev's frustration was evident on the sidelines – and his players got the message.

Striking four times in just 67 seconds, following four consecutive Barcelona turnovers, Kielece kick-started their hopes of success, closing the gap to 19:18, and forcing Pascual to take his first timeout to halt the slide.

When Manuel Strlek levelled the scores at 20:20, the momentium shifted, and the neutral fans in the arena had found their team to support. Barcelona changed the goalkeeper from Perez to Danijel Saric - and he had an instant impact while in attack Karabatic and Lazarov kept the flame of hope burning.

"We knew it would be a very tough game tonight. When Kielce went into the draw, we knew it would be a difficult game for us. I think the big difference today was when Sarics came in; he made some great plays for us and he gave us the belief that we could win the game," Barcelona line player Jesper Noddesbo said.

The European top-flight's most successful club escaped and five minutes before the end, with the score at 31:27, the celebrations began on their bench, and when Saric saved Bielecki’s penalty shot three minutes from time, Barcelona's passage to the final was sealed.

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TEXT: Björn Pazen