Unforeseen three-way tie at top of Group B as Löwen win and Kielce drawArticle
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Unforeseen three-way tie at top of Group B as Löwen win and Kielce draw

What was already a nip and tuck battle for the only available place that provided safe passage to the VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-finals has became tougher after Thursday’s games.

FC Barcelona Lassa, Rhein-Neckar Löwen and KS Vive Tauron Kielce are all tied at the top of Group B of the Group Phase on 15 points each, after the strong German side beat HC Vardar 28:27, and the Polish side missed a last-second penalty shot to draw in Sweden.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs HC Vardar (MKD) 28:27 (14:15)

Keen to avenge their worst loss of the season, a 25:19 drubbing at the hands of Vardar in Skopje, Rhein-Neckar Löwen banked on their impressive form in the last six games and came out victorious, if only by a one-goal margin, 28:27.

There was no shortage of drama in front of a packed Fraport Arena in Frankfurt, as the Macedonian side were hoping to avoid their fourth defeat in their last five matches.

If the game lasted only the first 40 minutes, Vardar would have seen their mission accomplished. The Macedonian side enjoyed a vigorous first half, with a skilful defensive display which saw them take an early lead and in the driving seat.

Löwen had no particular response for Vardar’s three-pronged backline with Sergei Gorbok, Alex Dujshebaev Dovichhebaeva and Luka Cindric running riot for the visitors.

However, an impressing upturn in the hosts’ defence and an inspired Mikael Appelgren between the posts took Lowen to what could be a season-defining victory.

If Appelgren was the driving force in the defence, making two amazing saves in the last minute, Löwen could not have made it without Andre Schmid in attack.

The Swiss centre-back had a career night in Frankfurt, scoring 10 of his team’s 28 goals, with a flurry of powerful shots that rendered Arpad Sterbik’s efforts in the Vardar goal obsolete – no mean feat indeed.

While Schmid scored five goals in each of the two halves, it was his performance at the end which took centre stage, as Vardar managed to erase the two-goal deficit that Löwen put up to draw level.

With the game set to finish as a draw, Schmid powered up and scored Löwen’s last four goals to bring his team their fifth victory in their last six games, propelling the German side to a three-way tie at the top of the group.

Nikolaj Jacobsen, Coach of Rhein-Neckar Lowen was full of pride after getting the two points. “I am happy about the victory after a long break [for EHF EURO 2016]. “It was our first win against Vardar in club history – a close game, but at the end we were the lucky team and won.”

His opposite number, Raul Gonzalez Gutierrez thought his side should have left Germany with something. “Congratulations to Rhein-Neckar Löwen,” he said. “We were the better team in the first half, and I believe we deserved one point from today, but it is really hard to play away in the Champions League.”

Lowen will have a mountain to climb if they are to win the group. A group-defining game will take place next Saturday (20 February), as the Germans will visit Kielce, then the following week they will play KIF Kolding Kobenhavn at home before ending with the difficult take of playing Barcelona away on the last matchday.

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL) 35:35 (17:19)

Having already disposed of KIF Kolding and Rhein-Neckar Lowen on home soil, IFK Kristianstad were proving to be a tough nut to crack for every team coming to Sweden in the VELUX EHF Champions League.

Therefore, Kielce’s mission was deemed to be even harder as the hosts went into this do-or-die match with their own, clear, mission: win, and keep the hope alive to advance to the first knockout round or lose and see your chances as slim- to-none.

What happened on court turned out to be one of the most entertaining games of this VELUX EHF Champions League season; a high-octane drama, with 70 goals scored, and a penalty shot missed by Tobias Reichmann for Kielce in the final second.

While the draw could disappoint both coaches it was the right result for a game that had a yo-yo effect and kept the adrenaline pumping for 60 minutes.

Kristianstad shocked their Polish counterparts with a flawless start, jumping to a staggering 6:2 lead after only four and a half minutes.

Karol Bielecki had an unusual off night but that did not stop Kielce returning to parity as they employed their traditional run-and-gun style and quickly caught up, taking a 14:12 lead in the 18th minute, which they protected until half-time.

But the start of the second half mirrored the first one, with the Swedish side jumping the gun and putting the game on its head.

As the time was running out, it looked more and more plausible that Kristianstad was going to protect their home court, boasting a 33:30 advantage with five minutes to spare.

But Kielce, led by coach Talant Dujshebaev, and their players had another plan. The Polish team’s experience and resilience were the key ingredients that saw the game’s final cliff-hanger.

With the Polish side completing an astonishing comeback, Talant Dujshebaev’s players were awarded a penalty shot with two seconds on the clock with score tied at 35:35.

In an unexpected turn of events, EHF EURO 2016 winner Tobias Reichmann, who converted all his nine shots into goals until that point, missed, his shot being saved and pushed onto the post by the excellent Nebosja Simic, who ensured the game ended even.

Moorchegani Iman Jamali, thanks to his ferocious throws from nine metres, produced eight goals for the hosts, who are still in seventh place in the group on five points, two points behind Montpellier HB.

On the other side, Kielce tie with Barcelona at the top of the group, with 15 points, but the Spanish giants have a game in hand.

TEXT: Adrian Costeiu / amc