Red Devils looking to end seven-year droughtArticle
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NEWS FEATURE: Alpla HC Hard carries the weight of all Austrian handball fans on their shoulders with fans hoping VELUX EHF Champions League again

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Red Devils looking to end seven-year drought

For seven years no Austrian team has been part of the group phase of the VELUX EHF Champions League - now it will be the fourth straight attempt for Alpla HC Hard.

In the semi-final of the qualification tournament the Austrian champions face host Borac Banja Luka (Bosnia-Herzegovina) on 5 September - and coach Markus Burger is confident of being successful this time: “The tournament is much more equal than the previous ones we took part in - there’s no that major favourite this year.”

In the last three years Hard always lost their semi-final: 2012 against Metalurg (MKD), 2013 against Vojvodina (SRB) and 2014 (on home ground) against Porto (POR). “I hope that we learnt our lessons well for this year and took advantage of the experience we have gathered,” says Burger, who is coach in Hard for the sixth straight season.

His team, nicknamed ‘The Red Devils’, is situated near Lake Constance and took their fifth Austrian title by beating their neighbours and arch rivals Bregenz twice in the best-of-three series of the Austrian league (HLA).

Since then the well-balanced squad did not change that much - and now hopes for the biggest international success after being finalist in the EHF Challenge Cup in 2008, though their coach is sure:

“It is always tough to face the host of a tournament. We expect a lion’s den with up to 3000 handball-crazy fans in Banja Luka. It will be a true battle for us, but if our goalkeeping and defence work well, we have our chance.”

Hard will start their bus trip to Bosnia on Thursday with nearly all players fit: “At this stage you have a lot of minor injuries after a tough preparation, but nothing serious - with one exception: Frederick Wüstner. Our defensive expert is suffering from a patellar tendon (knee cap) injury and could not play or train during the preparation. We would be happy, if he could manage to be part of our team in Banja Luka,” coach Burger hopes for a quick recovery prior to the first season highlight.

The preparation for the new season was successful: Hard took part in some international tournaments in Germany and Austria and finally had the ‘champions’ duel’ with Swiss Champions League group phase participant Kadetten Schaffhausen, which they narrowly lost by 30:32. “This was a perfect test for the Champions League qualification tournament,” says Burger.

In the first official domestic competition, the Austrian Super Cup against cup winner Fivers Vienna, Hard was not on their top form and were defeated by 27:32 .

For the first time Hard will not use the option of having a fourth foreign player, which is allowed in the Austrian league: “After Serbian Marko Krsmancic left, we set our focus on our youth programme, not on players from abroad. Half of our squad plays for Hard since they were youth players, so this is our future,” says Burger: “Maybe this is a disadvantage in the Champions League, but we are dedicated to stick to this mentality.”

Before the VELUX EHF Champions League qualification tournament, Hard had the chance to prove their strength in two league matches, also to test their only newcomers Felix Klötzel and Gernot Watzl.

The most experienced players in Burgers squad are Montenegrin goalkeeper Golub Doknic and former Austrian international Roland Schlinger - one of the rare players in Hard’s squad, who has already played in the Champions League group phase with his former club Bregenz.

The winner of the tournament will face Metalurg, Skjern, Zaporozhye, Schaffhausen and Baia Mare in Group D. Qualification for the next stage would not only make the fans of the Red Devils go crazy, says Burger: “It would simply be brilliant for the whole of Austrian handball. In 2010, when we hosted the EHF EURO, this was a remarkable step forward for all of us, so I believe that all Austrian fans will cross their fingers when we play in Banja Luka.”

TEXT: Björn Pazen / bc