Tussle at the top and bottom as knock-out stage loomsArticle
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GROUP B PREVIEW: FC Barcelona Lassa are looking to fend off a chasing pack aiming to topple them from the section’s pinnacle, while the bottom three teams are vying for one more berth in the round 16.

Tussle at the top and bottom as knock-out stage looms

There are two games left in the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase and the battle to advance has reached boiling point, with teams aiming to either improve their positions or secure a berth in the business end of Europe’s premier club competition.

Group B  
IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP)

Thursday 19:00 local time, live on ehfTV

This is crunch time for VELUX EHF Champions League debutants IFK Kristianstad, who must beat the reigning champions at home to keep any hopes of progressing to the round of 16 alive.

Even that will not be enough if Montpellier win their home game against KS Vive Tauron Kielce, as the French side are two points ahead of their Swedish rivals and have a better head-to-head record.

Kristianstad, who have given a good account of themselves in their maiden season, could not have asked for a tougher challenge in their most important game.

They enjoyed a positive lead-up to the clash against Europe’s most feared team, having beaten Malmo and Skovde to stay firmly in the driving seat of Sweden’s first division with 46 points from 24 games, seven ahead of closest rivals Alingsas.

Barcelona will be looking to extend their winning streak and stay on top of the group, with their Icelandic winger Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson set to score his 500th Champions League goal in their next match.

Sigurdsson, who has netted 499 times so far, heaped praise on Kristianstad and acknowledged they would be a tough prospect on home court.
“I was not surprised about the general level at which they play, as they have a strong team,” said Sigurdsson. “But I was surprised about their consistency. I had expected that their level would decrease after the EURO, but I was wrong. Their games against Kielce and at Skopje were brilliant.”

“We are absolutely aware of their strength on home court. Löwen lost there, Kielce were held to a draw, so we must play at 100 per cent to be victorious. We know that this is one of the most difficult away hurdles you have to cross in this group.”

MOL-Pick Szeged (HUN) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Sunday 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

The round’s Match of the Week features two teams who have already booked their knock-out stage tickets and are aiming to finish in the top half of the fiercely competitive group to earn a somewhat easier opposition in the round of 16.

Szeged and Vardar have both shown consistent home form so far, therefore the Hungarian side can be deemed slight favourites to come out on top.

Vardar will head to Szeged on the back of a somewhat fortuitous 38:36 home win over Kristianstad, where they managed a precious two points despite an array of defensive weaknesses which nearly allowed the Swedish side to snatch a share of the spoils.

The Macedonian side’s rear guard will have to be much stronger if they are to come away with anything from Hungary, with Szeged aiming to bounce back from a 30:25 defeat at the hands of title holders Barcelona.

Szeged will head into the clash on a high note after an impressive 39:26 Hungarian league win at Oroshaza which kept them top of the standings on 40 points from 21 games, four ahead of closest rivals Tatabanya.

Vardar’s towering pivot Stojance Stoilov made it clear the club’s aim was to win all their remaining group stage games, with the Macedonian giants at home to Montpellier in their final match.

“Before the clash with Kristianstad, who were a tough nut to crack, we set ourselves the goal to win all three remaining games in our group. We’ve won one, and there are two to go.”

The attacking prowess they showed against Kristianstad will be Vardar’s main hope of holding their own in Szeged, after Luka Cindric rifled in eight goals against the Swedish outfit and Russian Sergei Gorbok added seven.

No less than 11 Vardar players scored against Kristiansatd, underlying a potent and well-balanced attack able to grind down even the toughest opposition.

Szeged, in turn, showed plenty of guile and creativity against Barcelona but a 19:14 half-time deficit turned out to be an insurmountable task for the Hungarian side, who held the defending champions to a creditable 11:11 tie in the second period.  

Their Slovenian prodigy Dean Bombac was in fine form, scoring six goals, and there is little doubt he will once again be Szeged’s main striking pin in their quest to overcome Vardar.  
Montpellier HB (FRA) vs KS Vive Tauron Kielce (POL)
Sunday 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

This could be a make or break match for Montpellier, who have missed several chances to seal their knock-out stage berth.

The most recent opportunity was last week at Kolding, where a win would have ensured progress, as it would have left the French side four points clear of Kristianstad and a better head-to-head record against the Swedish side with two games remaining.

As it were, Montpellier suffered a dramatic 26:27 defeat at Kolding, which left them with some work to do in order to avoid a group stage exit.

Should Kristianstad lose at home to Barcelona however, Montpellier’s ticket to the knock-out rounds will be handed to them on a silver platter as the Swedish outfit would have no chance overtaking them.

The French side have won only two of their last eight games and crucially, both victories were against Kristianstad. A 29:29 home draw with Szeged also played a huge part in their pulling away in the battle for a top-six finish, but Montpellier will surely feel they badly need a win against Kielce to restore some confidence in Europe’s top flight.

Kielce, for their part, will be chasing two much-needed points to keep up with Barcelona in the race to finish top of the group and secure an automatic quarter-final berth.

The Polish champions are beaming after an enthralling 28:27 home win over Rhein-Neckar Löwen in the previous round, in which Croatians Denis Buntic and Ivan Cupic led the charge with five goals apiece.

Rhein-Neckar Löwen (GER) vs KIF Kolding København (DEN)
Sunday 19:30 local time, live on ehfTV

Having ground out a last-gasp 27:26 home win over Montpellier, KIF Kolding Kobenhavn reinvigorated their slim hopes of reaching the knock-out round in Round 12.  

In order to keep them ticking, the Danish side will have to beat Rhein-Neckar Löwen and hope that other results go their way.

Kolding are still rooted to the bottom of the standings on four points from 12 games, one behind Kristianstad and three adrift of Montpellier, who are in the best position to grab the last remaining berth.

The Danes must somehow find two points against their much more fancied German rivals and hope that at least Montpellier lose at home to Kielce if they are to stay in the hunt.

Löwen, on the other hand, have long since sealed their Last 16 berth, but a win in France would allow them to stay in the top half of the standings and boost their hopes of moving into second position.

A slight dip in domestic form has seen Rhein-Neckar Löwen lose their advantage at the top of the Bundesliga, allowing German champions THW Kiel to catch up with them on 36 points from 21 games.

They have also blown hot and cold in Europe, having lost two of their last three games.

Last weekend’s 27:28 defeat at Kielce was preceded by a home win over Vardar with the same score, which came on the back of a 24:30 loss at Szeged.

Löwen winger Stefan Rafn Sigurmannsson emphasised that Kolding’s performances have been better than their results, meaning that the German league leaders can expect anything but an easy match.

“They had many opportunities to win some more games but they suffered several very tight losses,” he told the club’s official website. “We have to be very careful as they have nothing to lose, while our goal remains to win in order to have a good starting position in the next round.”

TEXT: Zoran Milosavljevic / cg