Home straight beckons as battle gains momentumArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: VELUX EHF Champions League holders FC Barcelona Lassa can book their knockout stage berth if they beat KIF Kolding Kobenhavn

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Home straight beckons as battle gains momentum

With two rounds to go before the international break, Group B is heading for an enthralling finish, as all eight teams are still in with a chance of advancing into the last 16.

Reigning champions Barcelona can secure their passage as early as Sunday, when they visit the section’s bottom team Kolding, while the chasing pack will try to stay hot on their heels and edge closer to the business end of Europe’s elite club competition.


Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs IFK Kristianstad (SWE)
Thursday 26 November, 20:45 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

German league leaders Rhein-Neckar Löwen have a score to settle against VELUX EHF Champions League debutants IFK Kristianstad, having suffered a shock 32:29 defeat against the Swedish side in the reverse fixture last month.

Having seen MT Melsungen snap their 14-match winning streak in the Bundesliga after a 25:23 defeat at their closest rivals, RNL bounced back with a hard-fought 28:26 home success against Füchse Berlin which kept them top of the 18-team first division.

The result left the Mannheim Lions in pole position on 28 points from 15 games, four ahead of Melsungen who have a game in hand, while third-placed Flensburg are on 23 points from 14 games.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen also boosted their hopes of finishing top of their fiercely competitive Champions League section with a double win over French rivals Montpellier, which allowed them to leapfrog HC Vardar into second position and stay in touch with pace-setters Barcelona.

Given that winning the group means getting a bye into the quarter-finals, RNL will be fully focused on avoiding another slip-up against unpredictable Kristianstad, who have shown the ability to slug it out with Europe’s best on their day.

The Swedish side are desperate to hold on to sixth place they currently occupy, as it’s the last available spot guaranteeing a Last 16 berth, meaning that they have every incentive to go for what would be another huge upset.

With seventh-placed Montpellier level on four points from eight games and Denmark’s Kolding, who are two points adrift, lurking behind them, Kristianstad will hope to reproduce the kind of form which enabled them to stun RNL with a superb home court performance.   

KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday 28 November, 16:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

This is undoubtedly the section’s most enticing clash, with both sides eager to stay in contention for an automatic quarter-final berth or at least a top-two finish, which would, in turn, allow for easier opposition in the round of 16.

Wounded by two narrow defeats at the hands of Barcelona, the second one on home court in front of 6,000 passionate Macedonian fans, Vardar will head to Poland determined to get back to winning ways.

That, however, will be easier said than done against Kielce, who will be just as fired-up to erase the bitter memories of their 34:24 at the hands of Vardar when the two sides met in Skopje last month.

The outcome gave Vardar some measure of revenge for last season’s 55:51 aggregate quarter-final defeat by the Polish giants and the upcoming clash is poised to produce more fireworks in what is fast becoming an epic rivalry.

Once again, father and son will lock horns as Kielce coach Talant Dujshebaev will face his offspring, Alex, who was confined to three goals in the previous match between the two teams.

But while Dujshebaev may have proved that you can’t teach seniors new tricks when it comes to family hierarchy, he will want to review the match tape in order to stifle Vardar’s Russian duo Timur Dibirov and Sergei Gorbok, who blew away Kielce with eight goals apiece.

Vardar, for their part, will hope that Dujshebaev junior rediscovers his scoring form as he netted a slim total of only three goals in the Barcelona double-header.

The pair of losses to the Spanish giants have knocked Vardar off the group’s pinnacle and although they still have a chance of leaping back into the driving seat, the more realistic scenario is a bitter four-team dogfight to stay in the section’s top half.

Either way, the match in Kielce is bound to keep handball fans in the arena and around Europe on the edge of their seats from start to finish. 

KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN) vs FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP)
Sunday 29 November, 16:50 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Following patchy performances in the early stages of their VELUX EHF Champions League group phase, Barcelona finally showed their class with a double win over Vardar which put a smile on everyone’s face at the Spanish powerhouse.

Apart from keeping them top of the section, the accomplishment has also put Barcelona in the position to clinch a Last 16 berth with five games to spare if they beat Kolding on Sunday and neither Kristianstad nor Montpellier win their respective games.

Given that Barcelona’s passage into the knockout stages is all but assured anyway, their focus will be on putting another two points on the board to stay atop and thus keep the edge in the battle for an automatic quarter-final berth.

Kolding have won one and lost seven of their eight games but the solitary success was an impressive 33:31 home win over Vardar, which suggested that propping up the section is not the most accurate reflection of the Danish side’s potential.

Likewise, an unlucky 28:25 defeat by Barcelona in the reverse fixture showed that Kolding save their best for the most formidable opposition, meaning that the defending champions can expect anything but an easy ride on Sunday.

For one, they will expect top scorer Kiril Lazarov to start firing on all cylinders again after suffering a glaring dip in form against Vardar, having been bailed out by a pair of fantastic performances by left back Wael Jallouz.

The towering Tunisian rifled in 12 goals in the 31:30 home win against the Macedonian side and eight in the 27:25 away victory, making his mark as one of Barcelona’s emerging team leaders after joining them from THW Kiel at the beginning of last season.

With first-choice left back Filip Jicha out injured, Jallouz’s performances have shown the depth of Barcelona’s roster even after the departure of versatile playmaker Nikola Karabatic to Paris Saint-Germain Handball during the off-season break.

Kolding, who came up short in a 33:31 defeat Kielce in the previous round after leading for long spells, will once again rely on evergreen centre back Bo Spellerberg, who scored 10 goals, as well as upcoming left back Lasse Andersson.   

Montpellier HB (FRA) vs MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN)  
Sunday 29 November, 17:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

A clash of teams with slightly contrasting ambitions should guarantee exciting handball, with Montpellier battling to stay in contention for a Last 16 berth while Szeged are aiming for a potentially dramatic surge up the ladder.

In the best-case scenario, a win in France could see the Hungarian side move three places up from fifth to second, as they are level on 10 points with Kielce and Vardar while all three sides are only one adrift of Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

Szeged have so far had a solid run, winning the games they were expected, while beating more fancied Kielce 31:30 at home in the opening match can also be seen as a welcome bonus.

They benefited from a pair of wins against Kristianstad in their last two outings, a comfortable 35:28 home defeat of the Swedish side followed by a gritty 34:32 success in the return leg, when Dean Bombac shone with 13 goals.

Having scored only two in the first match, the Slovenian enjoyed a rich vein of scoring form, as Szeged overturned a three-goal half-time deficit in Sweden to stay firmly on course for a berth in the knockout stages.

Montpellier can hope for no giddy heights in the top half of the section at the end of the group stage, as they desperately need a win to merely keep alive their flailing hopes of avoiding an early exit.

Reeling from a pair of defeats by Rhein-Neckar Löwen, the French side will need to pull their socks up and invest every effort to grind out what may turn out to be a priceless win.


TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / br