The Panthers enter new hunting groundArticle
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Women’s EHF Champions League club countdown: 9 days to go - Fleury Loiret Handball (FRA)

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The Panthers enter new hunting ground

When you win all potential domestic trophies within 12 months and reach the EHF Cup Winners’ cup final within the same period, you deserve to be among the 16 best teams in Europe: Fleury Loiret Handball will start their maiden voyage in the Champions League, after the newly crowned French champions failed to qualify for the flagship competition two years ago losing against WHC Vardar SCBT in qualification.

Coach Frederic Bougeant led his team to the French cup in May 2014, the French league cup in February 2015 and finally the victorious final series in the French championship in May 2015.

Maybe the good working relationship with Vardar was one key to their first ever league title, as the Macedonians hosted a ten-day camp with the French to prepare for the MVM EHF FINAL4 in Budapest.

Now Vardar were in France, again for ten days, and Fleury proved their strength and ambitions by beating the FINAL4 participant twice in test matches.

In the new season, the Panthers have stuck to their old recipe of having a mix of French and Spanish players in their squad.

One of the club legends left Fleury, Marta Mangue, legendary Spanish playmaker, who joined Brest, but among the new arrivals, there’s another Spanish top star, line player Elisabeth Chavez.

She continues the pattern of extremely tall players at Fleury, as before Russian Elena Polenova had been playing for the club, now the double world champion (2005, 2007), Olympic silver medallist (2008) and Champions League winner (2008) is assistant coach of the second team.

Despite the new challenge of playing Champions League, Bougeant’s goal for the new season remains the same: winning one trophy each year, regardless the competition, but with a priority on the league.

As it is there first season in the Champions League, the club remains humble: “What is most important is to continue to make our players and our club grow up because we are new on this level of European competition,” says Bougeant.

His team will face FTC, Thüringer HC and Podravka in Group B, and the coach is confident that his team will be successful: “Our three opponents are much more experienced than us, and experience in the international context is an important advantage.

"But we have excellent ambitious players, who want to learn from Champions League and develop their character.”

The player with the biggest Champions League experience is Spanish Alexandrina Barbosa, who was already a finalist (in 2011 with Itxako), semi-finalist (with Valcea in 2013) and nearly made it to the FINAL4 in 2014 with her previous club Thüringer HC.

Team captain Gnonsiane Niombla is ready to discover the Champions League: “We hope to play as well as possible and to try to be on the right level - the Champions League level. Qualifying for the main round with some points would be great for us.”

Her opinion on the group matches opponents: “Thüringer is a redoubtable team with good experience in the Champions League. In addition, the German players are able to make the matches very difficult.

Playing against FTC will be a very tough match, as the Hungarian league is one of the hardest in Europe, they are able to defend like men, so we expect a tough fight. On the paper, Podravka Vegeta seem to be the weakest opponent, but we will have to respect them if we want get good results.”

Fleury Loiret Handball (FRA)

Qualification for the 2015/16 EHF Women’s Champions League season: French champions

Newcomers: Elisabeth Chavez Hernandez (Nice), Claire Scheid (Landi Lampaul), Aminata Doucoure (Stella Saint-Maur), Estelle Nze Minko (Nantes), Hadja Cisse (Cannes), Julie Foggea (Mios Biganos Begles)

Left the club: Audrey Bruneau (Mios Biganos Begles), Christelle Manga (Celles-sur-Belle), Camille De Sousa (Rennes), Marion Callave (Nantes),

Marta Mangue Gonzalez (Brest)

Coach:  Frederic Bougeant since 2012

Team captain: Gnonsiane Niombla

Opponents in the group matches: FTC, Thüringer HC, Podravka in Group B

EHF Women’s Champions League records:

Participations (including 2015/16 season): 2
Qualification: 2013/14

Other EC records:

Cup Winners Cup:
Finalist: 2014/15
Quarter-finals: 2013/14

EHF Challenge Cup:
Semi-finalist: 2011/12

French champion: 2015 (runners-ups in 2013)
French Cup winner: 2014
League Cup winner: 2015, (runners-ups in 2008), 2014

TEXT: Björn Pazen / bc