Barcelona and Vardar poised to produce a thrillerArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: The clash between holders Barcelona and Group B leaders Vardar is the highlight of the halfway point in the VELUX EHF Champions League and the Match of the Week in Round 7

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Barcelona and Vardar poised to produce a thriller 

Following the two-week long international break, Group B of the VELUX EHF Champions League returns to action with a highly anticipated clash between reigning champions Barcelona and the section’s pacesetters HC Vardar on Saturday in the Match of the Week.

Rhein Neckar-Löwen and KS Vive Tauron Kielce face tricky trips to Montpellier HB and KIF Kolding Kobenhavn respectively, while MOL-Pick Szeged are strong favourites at home to top flight debutants IFK Kristianstad. 


MOL–Pick Szeged (HUN) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Saturday, 14 November, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

With three wins and as many defeats so far, Szeged cannot afford a slip-up in this intriguing clash with IFK Kristianstad, who have shown that they can punch well above their perceived weight in their first season among Europe’s elite.

Although they suffered four expected losses at the hands of bigger and wealthier rivals, the Swedish side stunned fellow Scandinavians KIF Kolding Kobenhavn of Denmark in the opening round before springing the section’s biggest upset with a 32:29 home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen in their previous match.

Szeged will hence be wary, also bearing in mind the fact that IFK came very close to stinging Barcelona away, having given the reigning champions an almighty scare before going down 34:32 in an enthralling contest.

It will be the third meeting between the two sides, with Szeged winning both previous encounters as they beat IFK 29:18 at home and 26:23 away in the EHF Cup 2013/14 season.

The Hungarian outfit will rely on Slovenian sharpshooter Dean Bombac, their top scorer in the Champions League with 38 goals, to keep them coming against a fast-paced Kristianstad who have their own trump card capable of giving any defence a roasting.

Norwegian winger Kristian Björnsen has so far amassed 42 goals in the competition and will hope that his teammates can engineer plenty of fast breaks against Szeged to keep the production belt going.

Either way, it is a crucial game for both teams to stay in contention for a berth in the knockout stages, with Montpellier and KIF Kolding Kobenhavn breathing down their necks in the race for a top-six finish.   

MOTW: FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday 14 November, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

The eagerly awaited top of the table clash should come up with nothing less than a classic, with Barcelona able to leapfrog Vardar into pole position if they beat the Macedonian side on home court.

Stature and history is firmly on Barcelona’s side, as the winners of record eight titles in the VELUX EHF Champions League have seven wins and one draw in their previous eight encounters with Vardar in European competition.

The holders will also bank on home court advantage, but all that will count for nothing if Barcelona display the inconsistency which has occasionally dogged them in the opening six games this season.

The reigning champions have clawed several wins from the jaws of defeat, as well as a last-gasp draw against Vive Tauron Kielce, following the opening 22:21 defeat at Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

Although they have shown the makings of a great side able to grind out results even when they are not at their best, the departure of versatile centre back Nikola Karabatic to PSG has left obvious chinks in the armour.

For all their strength, Barca are no longer as impregnable at the back as they were and they also lack creativity up front at times, with sharpshooters Kiril Lazarov and new signing Filip Jicha often left to their own devices and using raw talent to conjure goals.

But Vardar should undoubtedly bring the best out of Barcelona as the Catalan side will be out to prove their worth, silence the critics and get into the section’s driving seat, which guarantees a bye into the quarter-finals when the competition enters the knockout stage.

Vardar have been remarkably consistent in forcing their rivals into submission, even though they slipped up at KIF Kolding Kobenhavn for their only defeat of the season so far.

However, they now face the biggest test of their credentials and will not need a motivational dressing room talk from their Spanish coach Raul Gonzales.

Boasting top quality in all departments, Vardar will bank on the good form of Russian winger Timur Dibirov and right back Alex Dujshebaev, who knows the opposition only too well having faced them in the Spanish league for several years.

But no one at Vardar knows Barcelona as well as towering goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik, who joined the Macedonian side last season after spending two years at the Spanish giants and many more with BM Ciudad Real.

A myriad of personal battles between old friends and rivals should hence result in a spectacular clash, bound to keep handball fans in the Palau Blaugrana on the edge of their seats from start to finish.
Montpellier HB (FRA) vs Rhein-Neckar Lowen (GER)  
Sunday 15 November, 15:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

The VELUX EHF Champions League group phase is only approaching the halfway mark but both teams will view this fixture as essential, given that their current standings are not quite in line with their aspirations.

Hoping to challenge for the top spot, Rhein-Neckar Löwen are three points off the pace after a shock 32:29 setback at Kristianstad in the previous round, having also suffered a 25:19 whitewash at Vardar after a 32:32 home draw with Kielce.

Reigning supreme in the Bundesliga, where they are in pole position with 13 wins from as many games after Wednesday’s 28:22 home defeat of Leipzig, RNL have endured a costly Champions League dip in form.

There is little doubt they will see the visit to Montpellier as an ideal opportunity to get back to winning ways in Europe’s elite club competition.

However, the French side too desperately need a win in order to keep alive their hopes of avoiding an early exit, as they are seventh in the group with only four points from six games.

Montpellier’s good performance at Szeged in the previous round went unrewarded as they were edged 28:27 by the Hungarian side, but will hope for a better fortune against RNL if the match goes down to the wire.

They did not enjoy a perfect warm up for the tie, having been held to a 28:28 home draw by Nantes in the French first division. The result kept them third in the 14-team league, a point behind leaders Paris Saint-Germain Handball who also have a game in hand.

Nonetheless, coach Patrice Canayer will have been happy with the scoring prowess of Michael Guigou, who netted nine goals from 11 shots, and praised his team for a good effort.

“The players were brave, intelligent and lucid and showed a lot of control in the second half,” Canayer told the club’s official website.

Guigou added: “It’s always difficult to hit the ground running after the international break but we did what we could and I am proud of my teammates.”  
KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Sunday 15 November, 16:50 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

An impressive home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen followed by a dramatic 28:25 defeat at Barcelona will give KIF the confidence that they can overcome Kielce, having shown that they are capable of slugging it out with Europe’s best after a poor start to the season.

Kolding lost their opening four games but then shone against RNL and produced a magnificent first half against Barca before they succumbed to the reigning champions.

The Danish side will be keen to avoid the second-half meltdown which allowed their rivals to overturn a massive deficit, with Kielce capable of producing similar streaks.

The Polish outfit have so far had a topsy-turvy campaign, with two wins, draws and defeats in six games, keeping in the balance their hopes of advancing into the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.

Kielce’s coach Talant Dujshebaev made it clear in no uncertain terms that his team wants much more than to merely qualify for the Last 16.

“We are still mathematically in the hunt for a top-two finish in our group so it is essential that we play well and win,” the Spaniard told a news conference.

“Of course we have a lot of respect for Kolding, it is a big mistake to have your sights on Barcelona and Vardar only and not take seriously the other teams in the section,” he said.

Back court powerhouse Krzysztof Lijewski stressed that being bottom of the table is not a fair reflection of Kolding’s strength and potential.

“They are improving all the time and we will need to give everything we’ve got if we are to win in Copenhagen,” he emphasised.

“We have a lot of difficult games in the next four weeks and if we are to progress as far as we want to, beating KIF is essential.”

Kolding had a strong dress rehearsal for the clash, having been held to a 25:25 home draw by Aalborg in a Danish league meeting which left them in fourth place, two points behind their table-topping rivals.

KIF showed remarkable resilience to snatch a share of the spoils, having trailed from the start as they wiped out a five-goal deficit.

If they are to get a result against Kielce, Kolding will in all likelihood need to produce the same kind of grit in front of a passionate home crowd on Sunday. 

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br