Vardar and Barcelona jostle for top spot againArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: Round 8 of the VELUX EHF Champions League is set to produce a plethora of entertainment in Group C

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Vardar and Barcelona jostle for top spot again

With the group phase of Europe’s premier club competition at the halfway mark, the battle to enter the knockout stage is as fierce as ever. Some clubs are vying for a top-two finish and hence a more favourable passage into the Last 16, while others are desperately trying to avoid an early exit.


Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs Montpellier HB (FRA)  
Wednesday 18 November, 18:45 hrs local time; live on ehfTV

German league leaders Rhein-Neckar Löwen ground out an important 30:28 win over Montpellier in the reverse fixture last weekend and will be keen to complete the double over the French side.

Another victory would keep Rhein-Neckar firmly on course to reach the knockout stages, while it would also allow them to keep up the pressure on group leaders Barcelona and second-placed Vardar.

Montpellier, in contrast, are hanging on to their last 16 hopes with their fingernails, as they are seventh in a fiercely competitive section with four points from seven matches, level with sixth-placed debutants IFK Kristianstad.

The Swedish side currently occupy the last remaining spot guaranteeing a berth in the knockout stages, hence Montpellier have no choice but to go for what would amount to a massive upset in Mannheim.

Montpellier coach Patrice Canayer acknowledged his team required a better defensive performance if they are to stun RNL in front of their own boisterous fans.

“Goalkeeping made the difference in the previous match as the visitors had 17 stops and we only made 12,” Canayer told the club’s official website after seeing his team edged out.

The Lions will rely on their top performers to stay as focused as they were in France, where Kim Ekdahl Du Rietz scored a game-high seven goals while Uwe Gensheimer and Andy Schmid added five each.

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)
Wednesday 18 November, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

This is set to be a massive game for IFK Kristianstad, who desperately need a win in order to keep alive their hopes of reaching the VELUX EHF Champions League knockout stages in their first season in Europe’s elite club competition.

Having stunned the likes of KIF Kolding Kobenhavn and Rhein-Neckar Löwen on home court, beating MOL-Pick Szeged should not be a task beyond the Swedish side’s abilities.

However, IFK are in all likelihood still reeling from the 35:28 defeat in the reverse fixture, where they failed to reproduce some of the glow they showed against arguably tougher rivals in the section.

Their star winger Kristian Björnsen, the club’s top scorer in the competition with 45 goals, managed only three against the Hungarian last weekend and will be expected to up his game when the two teams meet again on Wednesday.

Szeged, for their part, will rely on their Swedish left wing Jonas Källman to do as much damage against his compatriots as he inflicted on home court, having propelled his team to victory with eight goals.

HC Vardar (MKD) vs FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP)
Sunday 22 November, 17:45 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

If the match in Barcelona was anything to go by, HC Vardar and the Champions League holders are set to produce another classic, keeping fans in the Macedonian capital on the edge of their seats.

Those across Europe will be glued to their television sets as the group’s top two teams take centre stage again, with Vardar eager to erase the memories of last weekend’s 31:30 defeat and leapfrog Barcelona back into the section’s pole position.

The home side’s primary concern will be to make sure that Barcelona’s Tunisian left back Wael Jallouz does not enjoy the kind of freedom which allowed him to rifle in 12 goals in the previous match.

His flurry of thunderbolts from the nine-meter line compensated for a poor afternoon suffered by Barca’s top scorer Kiril Lazarov, who netted only once from nine shots on goal.

Vardar fans will hope that Lazarov has a similarly tough afternoon in the Jane Sandanski Arena, where he will face his brother Filip as Vardar aim to celebrate their first win over the Spanish giants in a milestone 10th meeting between the two sides.

Also essential to Vardar’s ambitions will be the continued good form of their Russian left back Sergei Gorbok, who led their effort in Barcelona with eight goals.

Barcelona, on the other hand, must hope that Kiril Lazarov, who has scored 46 goals so far, rediscovers his shooting prowess on one of the most intimidating away courts in Europe.

If anything, the raucous atmosphere should inspire the prolific right back, who left Macedonian club handball 15 long years ago when he joined Croatian giants Zagreb.

Goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik, who produced one of the round’s top five saves when he kept out a Lazarov sitter in Barcelona, will also relish facing his former club again.

KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN)
Sunday 22 November, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Polish champions Kielce dismantled Kolding with an impressive performance on Sunday and will expect a repeat when they lock horns again with the Danish side next weekend.

Although they have played in fits and starts, Kielce are still in the running for a top-two finish, while the best Kolding can hope for at the end of the group phase is to avoid an early exit.

Despite improving their form in recent games, KIF are still rooted to the bottom of the section with only one win in seven games and their tame defeat by Kielce on home court left a lot to be desired.

Kobenhavn have become overly reliant on their promising 21-year old left back Lasse Andersson, who has been forced to take too many difficult shots as shown by the fact that he netted seven times form 14 efforts against a rock-solid Kielce defence.

Veteran playmaker Bo Spellerberg will want to make amends for a poor afternoon in Denmark, having finished scoreless from six shots on goal, and his contribution will be sorely needed if KIF are to stand any chance of springing an upset.

Kielce, for their part, need the balanced effort which saw 11 of their players score against Kolding, led by the evergreen Karol Bielecki who rifled in seven goals.

Their coach Talant Dujshebaev emphasised, however, that he wasn’t entirely happy with his team’s first-half performance.

“We were very nervous and made too many sloppy errors early in the game, but improved as the match progressed,” he was quoted as saying by Kielce’s official website.

“It was a very important win, though, and I must congratulate my players for their strong defence and efficient attacking.”

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br