Good friends, bitter rivalsArticle
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FACE TO FACE: The fourth top scorer of the season will face one of the most experienced goalkeepers in the competition for a place at the Women's EHF FINAL4.

Good friends, bitter rivals

While Buducnost, Györi Audi ETO KC and HC Vardar confidently disposed their counterparts in the first leg of this season's Women’s EHF Champions League Quarter-finals, Rostov-Don have seen their almost immaculate record torn into pieces, after a 26:25 loss against CSM Bucuresti.

Therefore, there is no room for mistakes for the Russian powerhouse in their home game against the Romanian champions. But Rostov will need all the help they can get to win their first Women's EHF FINAL4 berth and that means a phenomenal game from goalkeeper Katrine Lunde.

The four-time winner of Europe’s premium competition has formed a successful partnership with second keeper Anna Sedoykina, but the Norwegian will have to stop Isabelle Gulldén - CSM’s top scorer, with 83 goals this season so far, only six less than Ekaterina Ilina, Allison Pineau and Nora Mork, the three top scorers of the competition.

The career paths of Rostov’s Lunde and CSM’s Gulldén have been connected for a few years, as the two players bonded over the mutual training camps that the Norwegian and Swedish national teams held together.

"She is a good player who controls the game very well. She can be very dangerous for any opponent, because she can score, but she can also pull off an assist that few players could make. Usually, we meet on national team duty, we had training camps together, so we had the chance to talk.

"Therefore, we know each other personally, we exchange messages from time to time. Last time we talked was before the first leg, when we had a training in Bucharest. But this week, we did not keep in touch," said Lunde.

The mutual respect is there, also seen from Gulldén: "On a good day, Katrine is close to unbeatable. She is one of the best goalkeepers in the whole world. I know her well from the mutual Swedish-Norwegian training camps and I know how much she wants to win every game."

"After a long lay-off, she came back and I think she is hungrier than ever to win," said the CSM playmaker.

"Rostov is still the favourite"

The tie between Rostov and CSM is surely lighting up in the second leg, with only one goal separating the two sides.

"As we all know, a goal means little in handball. But I think we will cause some trouble, even if Rostov is a good home side and they are playing very well," said Gulldén.

However, both players agree that Rostov are the slight favourites, even if they lost the first leg.

"Many people think that it is still Rostov that will progress to the FINAL4. We did not play really well. It was an up-and-down match, and we did not always perform as we wanted. But I agree with our head coach Jan Leslie who said that the defeat may be even useful. Now we know the opponents better," said Lunde.

But Bucuresti is still in it, with the win bringing some much-needed self-confidence that the team lacked in the first part of the season. "I think we believed in ourselves and we played better because of it. We had a long series of injuries and played without a proper right back, but now Line Jörgensen can play and it helps us a lot," added Gulldén.    

"Everything I am dreaming of"

If CSM want to progress to the Women's EHF FINAL4 in their first season in this competition, they will have to stop Ekaterina Ilina, who scored nine goals in the first leg.

"I think Ilina has been phenomenal this season and she has been the best player from Rostov in the first leg. But failing to stop other players like Sen or Managarova will not be tolerated and we will be punished," said CSM’s Swedish centre back.

With the first leg having seen a seesaw pattern, with nine lead changes and Bucuresti leading by as much as four goals only to mount an unexpected comeback from two goals down, Lunde only thinks about the berth in Budapest.

"We have a team which is more than one player. We are the best together when all players are equal. Maybe the game was not too good because it was the first time in history that Rostov played on such level, a quarter-final. But we need to step up now," added the Norwegian goalkeeper.

While Katrine Lunde and Isabelle Gulldén are playing for different teams, they agree on one thing: a place at the Women's EHF FINAL4 would mean the world to both of them.

"This is everything I am dreaming of. This is why I am playing handball and working so hard every day. I think playing on the biggest stage in Europe would definitely motivate me a lot," concluded Gulldén.

On the other hand, it would be Katrine Lunde’s second time in Budapest, after the Norwegian helped Györi Audi ETO KC power to the title two years ago.

"I already played there two years ago when the FINAL4 was actually held for the first time. My team won the trophy back then and it was exciting. So I know what kind of atmosphere will be in Budapest, with lots of people and so on. It is our big goal to be among the top four teams of Europe," said Lunde.

Both players are already among the top players this season, as they are nominated for the All-star team. Click here to access the vote.

TEXT: Sergey Nikolaev, Adrian Costeiu / es