Veszprem book their third straight ticket to FINAL4Article
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QUARTER-FINAL REVIEW: 2015 finalists Veszprem clinch their VELUX EHF FINAL4 berth, but have to climb a much higher mountain than expected to tie with Vardar

Veszprém book their third straight ticket to FINAL4

The 29:26 away win at Skopje last week was the base for MVM Veszprém to make it to Cologne again.

The Hungarian team looked like they would be eliminated from their final destination in the VELUX EHF Champions League in the first half against Vardar on home ground on Saturday, but the goals of Laszlo Nagy and Momir Ilic plus Mirko Alilovic’s saves turned the tide in the second half.

Finally - and like twice in the regular season of the SEHA Liga - Veszprem and Skopje tied.

VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-final, second leg:
MVM Veszprém (HUN) vs HC Vardar (MKD) 30:30 (12:14)
Veszprém win 59:56 on aggregate

“Third time in a row at Cologne” said the sign which Veszprém’s mascot held high into the TV camera, while the players were dancing around him.
In total, Veszprém qualified for the sixth time for a semi-final of the EHF Champions League - but still wait for their first trophy.

Thanks to again nine goals of Momir Ilic (18 in total in both quarter-finals against Vardar) and 14 saves of Mirko Alilovic, the Hungarian record champions are still in the race for the trophy.

On the other hand, Vardar for the third time in a row failed in the quarter-finals - after Flensburg 2014 and Kielce 2015, this time it was Veszprém.

Thus, Javier Sabate will represent the Spanish handball coaching school in Cologne and not Raul Gonzalez.

"I think Vardar is getting closer and closer to Cologne year by year. They are a very good team with a good coach. We respect our rivals, so we prepared very hard," Sabate said. "It was team work, together with our supporters, who were more amazing than ever."

Veszprém could not profit from the great support from the stands in the first half. Vardar had the better flow and pace in attack.

The Macedonian champions only needed nine minutes to level the first leg result (26:29), when they were ahead by 4:1, and Vardar virtually were in Cologne when leading 6:2.

Veszprém did not find the means to stop the team from Skopje, which several times was ahead by four goals.

"I think we missed our chance in Skopje," Vardar line player Stojanche Stoilov said. "Today we also had the chance but it was hard against such a good team. I hope we can do it next year."

The rhythm of both sides was stopped by a huge number of two minute suspensions. Thus, Vardar’s Spanish left back Jorge Maqueda were on the bench for the second time after only 18 minutes.

But still both teams fought hard for every centimetre, proved by the bloody cut over the eye of Ilja Abutovic, who then needed to finish the match with a turban around his head.

Vardar - backed by some spectacular saves from former Veszprém keeper Arpad Sterbik - kept the advance they needed to proceed to Cologne nearly until the halftime buzzer, but a double strike of Laszlo Nagy and Gasper Marguc prevented the team of coach Javier Sabate from a halftime discussion (12:14).

And four minutes after the break, Veszprém were fully back on track, when Aron Palmarsson levelled the result for the first time at 15:15.

From that moment on, when the hosts managed to start their counter-attacks, Vardar’s dominance was gone. But their joker was Mate Lekai. The centre back took the responsibility and his forth strike meant the first lead for the hosts exactly nine minutes after the break at 19:18, followed consequently by a time-out from Raul Gonzalez.

And when the score was 20:18 and the aggregate advance was at five goals, Veszprém had negotiated the biggest obstacles on their to the VELUX EHF FINAL4.

Though their chances to proceed became smaller and smaller minute by minute and the clock was ticking against them in this highly emotional duel.

Vardar never gave up and showed moral and fighting spirit. But with all of their experience, Nagy and Momir Ilic kept their team ahead by at least one, but most two goals in that crucial period.

"We knew we could have critical moments, but we could solve them because we had prepared for it," Mate Lekai said. "The atmosphere was amazing tonight. We would like to make the final step in our third FINAL4 in a row."

Vardar coach Raul Gonzalez thanked his players "who have done everything for the victory. We had the chance to do it, but we failed, because Veszprém was good with Lékai in the middle."

When the aggregate winner and owner of the ticket to Cologne was confirmed, Veszprém allowed Vardar to take the lead again, but finally equalised the result.

TEXT: Björn Pazen / ew