Knock-out battle heats up with trio on topArticle
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GROUP C REVIEW: Wins for Meshkov Brest and Porto heat up the race for the top two spots in the group as the climax of the group phase approaches.

Knock-out battle heats up with trio on top

Futebol Clube do Porto succeeded in the modern Iberian clash against Naturhouse La Rioja, while HC Meshkov Brest won without much stress against bottom-placed TATRAN Presov in Group C’s VELUX EHF Champions League matches on Saturday.

There are now three teams with twelve points – Porto, La Rioja and Meshkov – pushing qualification for the Last 16 to the wire.

Futebol Clube do Porto (POR) vs La Rioja (ESP) 35:31 (15:14)

Porto have proven yet again that Dragao Caixa is a fortress, with a win in a clash of Group C titans. The Dragons have been steadily proving the growing popularity and quality of Portuguese handball with a strong group phase – and their loyal fans were rewarded with a blockbuster match.

The game featured some nervous moments, beautiful goals, amazing saves and plenty of emotions in a well-matched contest.

It took almost eight minutes for the Spanish side to find the net, as the opening minutes proved the words of La Rioja’ s coach Jota Gonzalez about the quality of the hosts’ defence.

La Rioja’s Richard Carl Johan Kappelin and Porto’s Alfredo Bravo Quintana were the men to watch out for, giving their opponents a lot of trouble with superb defence and excellent saves as Dragao Caixa saw only one goal in the first seven minutes.

Both teams soon settled in and Porto held a one-goal lead at half-time, but the Portuguese side became much more convincing in the second half.

The Dragons were up by three goals by the 38th minute, and it was this phase that decided the whole match. La Rioja kept close from that point, but were never able to level the game.

“In the second half we lost possession too often and that was crucial for us. FC Porto felt more confortable and scored easy goals. After that, it was very hard for us to try to get back in the game; even more when we were losing by six or seven goals with not that much time left,” said Gonzalez.

Ricardo Costa’s tactics with the flying goalkeeper worked, and Hugo Madeira Laurentino added fine saves for Porto to cruise home to their sixth win of the group phase.

Yoel Cuni Morales put his name on the scoresheet six times as he led the blue and white stripes to a long-awaited win, directed mostly from the back court.

The crucial win for Porto means both clubs are tied on 12 points and are on top together with Meshkov Brest. This is only second defeat of La Rioja in the competitive matches this season.

“This was just another win included in the goals we've established for ourselves in this competition. We've said since the begining that we were candidates to the two first positions in the group, and that goal is still possible,” said Costa.

“We had an amazing performance and we totally deserved this win. The next game is very important, but we are used to play important games.”

HC Meshkov Brest vs TATRAN Presov 32:26 (17:12)

Seven goals from Latvian giant Dainis Kristopans, the tallest player in the competition at 215 cm, and eight from top scorer Pavel Atman were the key to Meshkov’s win on Saturday, while Radoslav Antl helped to keep the score line in control with five goals for Presov.

Fans began celebrating the win early as Meshkov Brest looked well in control through the first half.

Their defensive work paid off, and goalkeepers Dzmitry Patotski and Vitali Charapenka were not forced to show their best. Efficient shooting from the back court and co-operation with the line player worked for the hosts.

But Meshkov entered the second half too comfortable, and it was clear the home side underestimated their opponent when Presov won the last 20 minutes by one goal.

Presov Goalkeeper Igor Chupryna had his day, with a particularly spectacular save in the last minutes against Siarhei Shylovich, but in the end there was no room for a comeback.

Presov remain at the bottom of Group C with one win in eight matches as Brest continue to heat up the race with Porto and La Rioja for top two spots.

Sergey Bebeshko was satisfied with two points, but also revealed it could have been a better night for Meshkov with no hint of a smile during post-match interviews.

“We played against a strong team,” said Bebeshko. “Tatran did not play quickly and Chupryna played very well in the beginning, making many saves.

“Only after substituting Chupryna for Bozic did we manage to create a good difference – but finally the difference was not as big as it should be therefore we have to be unhappy and improve our performance in next game.”

TEXT: Tomas Cuncik / cg