Barca lock horns with Kielce as Vardar aim to bounce backArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: VELUX EHF Champions League holders, FC Barcelona Lassa, clash with Polish rivals, KS Vive Tauron Kielce, at home in the group’s derby, while HC Vardar are looking to end a three-game losing streak when they entertain KIF Kolding Kobenhavn.

Barca lock horns with Kielce as Vardar aim to bounce back

The final round of group phase games before the seven-week long international break offers some crowd-pullers in Group B, namely a mouth-watering clash between reigning champions Barcelona and Polish powerhouse Kielce.

In three successive matches Vardar slipped from first to fifth in the standings, hence they will be keen to get their campaign back on track against Kolding, who also desperately need a win, if they are to keep alive any realistic hopes of reaching the knockout rounds.

IFK Kristianstad face an intense fight against Montpellier to stay on course for a Last 16 berth, while Szeged and Rhein-Neckar Löwen are headed for an intriguing clash in Hungary.


HC Vardar (MKD) vs KIF Kolding Kobenhavn (DEN)
Saturday 5 December, 17:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Reeling from two successive losses, thanks to Barcelona, followed by a 23:20 reverse at Kielce, Vardar desperately need to beat Kolding in order to get back to winning ways and boost their hopes of finishing in the top half of a fiercely competitive group.

Having occupied the top spot before the decline, the Macedonian giants are now in fifth place; five points off pace and thus, facing a realistic chance of being pitted against difficult opposition in the Last 16 after the group phase.

Kolding, on the other hand, are rounding up the section with only two points from nine games and a defeat would mean another step towards an early exit from Europe’s premier club handball competition.

After a pair of decent performances and narrow defeats against Barcelona, Vardar looked rather flat against Kielce, as their misfiring attacks scored only six goals in the first half.

Although they improved after the break, Vardar still showed a lack of cutting edge in attack, struggling against an ironclad Kielce defence, which confined their star player, Alex Dujshebaev, to a mere two goals.

Their coach, Raul Gonzales, will be especially concerned with the fact that three players – Sergei Gorbok, Mijajlo Marsenic and Timur Dibirov - scored 14 of the team’s 20 goals in Poland, as he continues to anticipate a more balanced firepower against Kolding.

The Danish champions put up a brave fight in a 36:28 home defeat to Barcelona, having been undone in the final 15 minutes of a high-scoring contest.

The perennial chink in Kolding’s armour – soft defending – once again dashed their hopes of upsetting a more heralded opposition. There is little doubt as they face another formidable task when they meet Vardar in the Jane Sandanski Arena.

The visitors hope that their upcoming 21-year old left back Lasse Andersson rediscovers his scoring ways, which caught the eye of fans and pundits, before a loss of form saw him finish scoreless against the VELUX EHF Champions League holders.   

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs Montpellier HB (FRA)  
Saturday 5 December, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

A crunch game for both teams, with sixth-placed Montpellier one point ahead of seventh-placed Kristianstad in the race for a Last 16 ticket from the competition’s most difficult group.

The French side claimed what could eventually turn out to be a crucial point in last weekend’s 29:29 home draw with Szeged, while Kristianstad lost their last three games following an impressive 32:29 home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

The Swedish title holders have occasionally punched above their weight in their maiden season among Europe’s elite and they will need their trademark fighting spirit if they are to leapfrog Montpellier in the standings.

Kristianstad enjoyed a fine warm-up for the clash, winning 31:27 at Ricoh to stay atop of the Swedish first division, earning the maximum 26 points from 13 games, five points more than Alingsas who have a game in hand.

Montpellier, in contrast, suffered a 27:24 defeat at Creteil, which left them second in the French league, trailing leaders Paris Saint-Germain by five points.

With so much at stake, the clash in Sweden is likely to be a nerve-jangling contest between two teams, whose attacking skills super-seed their defending abilities.

It would be no surprise, though, if both sides try to prevent each other from playing to their strengths, meaning that resilience could make all the difference in this make-or-break encounter, likely to go down to the wire.

FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Saturday 5 December, 18:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Four wins in a row saw Barcelona surge to the group’s pinnacle and there is no doubt that beating Kielce, in order to stay in the driving seat, will be the only thing on their mind when they clash with the Polish giants on Saturday.

Having won a pair of rip-roaring encounters against Vardar before cruising to a comfortable win at Kolding, Barcelona again face a stern test of their title credentials.

Since their 34:24 drubbing at Vardar, Kielce too have hit top gear, winning  three on the trot to move into third position; three points behind Barcelona and one adrift of second-placed Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

Their legendary Spanish coach, Talant Dujshebaev, will have been pleased with the team’s resolute defending in last weekend’s 23:20 home win against Vardar - a trait Kielce will need in plentiful supply when they face a potent Barcelona attack.

Despite missing left back Filip Jicha through injury for some time now, Barcelona thrived from the devastating form of his worthy understudy Wael Jallouz.

The Tunisian deserved his share of the credit for the Catalan side’s recent success, as he rifled in a total of 29 goals in his last three appearances through a high shooting percentage.

The towering 24-year old may, however, find it a bit tougher to break down Kielce’s ironclad rear guard in the cauldron of their jam-packed arena, where the home fans create a fervent atmosphere.

Kielce will rely on a balanced roster boasting a plethora of players, happy to step up to the plate at crunch time, under the most intense pressure, which makes the Polish champions one of the prime candidates to reach the VELUX EHF Final4.

Nine of their players found the back of the net in a low-scoring contest against Vardar and all of them played their part in defence; hence, the fans throughout Europe can look forward to a cracking heavyweight clash.

Kielce will also attempt to chalk up their first win against Barcelona in European competition, having lost three and drawn two of their five encounters so far.

Their last meeting, in the group’s reverse fixture earlier this term, ended in a thrilling 30:30 share of the spoils after Barcelona’s Danish pivot Jesper Brian Noddesbo beat the buzzer with a last-gasp goal from the six-metre line. 

MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER)   
Saturday 5 December, 20:45 hrs local time, live on ehfTV

Having recovered from a shocking 32:29 setback at IFK Kristianstad, along with three impressive wins, Rhein-Neckar Löwen will have the group’s top spot firmly in their sights when they take on Szeged.

The German league leaders, favourites to win the Bundesliga title and reach the VELUX EHF Champions League Final4, looked the part in Wednesday’s 32:25 away rout of Flensburg.

The result left Mannheim’s Lion’s roaring proudly at the top of the German division with 30 points from 16 games, five more than second-placed Flensburg and six ahead of third-placed THW Kiel.

“The first half was the best half we played since I took over this team,” RNL coach Nikolaj Jacobsen said, after his side carved out a whopping 18:10 advantage in the opening period and continued to hold off a Flensburg onslaught after the break.

“We had a lapse and lost a bit of focus in the second half, but we fought back well from adversity against a team of Flensburg’s quality,” he added.

Andy Schmid is again expected to be Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s driving force after netting 11 goals in last weekend’s resounding 29:20 home win over Kristianstad, which kept the German side breathing down Barcelona’s necks in the battle for the top spot.

With the group winners getting a bye to the quarter-finals, RNL will have every incentive to keep up the pressure on the competition’s reigning champions.

In order to stay in the hunt, they will see beating fearless Szeged essential to their task, but the Hungarian side will be just as motivated to prove their worth in front of a traditionally boisterous home crowd.

Szeged have won three and drawn one of their last four games, with Slovenian centre back Dean Bombac in dangerous form.

The 26-year old from Koper scored 22 goals in his last two games, to keep his side in the upper half of the standings, with Szeged lying fourth with 11 points in nine games, ready to pounce at the slightest opportunity to move further up the ladder.

Bombac is the competition’s fourth-highest scorer with a total of 62 goals, only four behind Metalurg’s Janko Bozovic and PSG maestro Mikkel Hansen, while he trails Naturhouse La Rioja marksman Cristian Viana by three goals.

A personal battle between Schmid and Bombac is another feature likely to light up this eagerly awaited clash, crucial for both teams’ aspirations to gain ground before the international break.

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / tm