Fourth-time lucky for Macedonians?Article
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Women's EHF Champions League countdown - 3 days to go: HC Vardar (MKD).

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Fourth-time lucky for Macedonians?

On Saturday 14 September 2013, HC Vardar played their first-ever match in the Women’s EHF Champions League, winning 35:16 against Italian side Jomi Salerno in Group 4 of Qualification Round 2 in front of 200 spectators in the southern Italian town of Eboli. 

Vardar, in their debut season then, made it all the way to the final, in Budapest, and like Buducnost, the Macedonians are the only side to have qualified for all three Women’s EHF FINAL4 events since its inception, but unlike Buducnost, Vardar have never made it to the final. 

In 2015 and 2016 they lost their semi-finals to Buducnost and then CSM Bucuresti respectively, both of whom went on to win the title and in that first season their semi-final was lost to Buducnost too.


Now with a strengthened squad from last season Vardar start their fourth attempt at Champions League glory with the dream again of reaching the Papp Laszlo Arena in Budapest, home of the Women’s EHF FINAL4.

The improved team includes the signing of Brazilian 2015 IHF Women’s World Championship winner Mayssa Pessoa - completing their goalkeeping trio of team captain Inna Suslina and French Rio 2016 Olympic Games finalist Amandine Leynaud – plus two-time World and Olympic champion and four-time EHF EURO champion with Norway, Camilla Herrem and French right back Alexandra Lacrabere. 

Two Russians - Olga Chernoivanenko (Rostov-Don) and Alena Ikhneva (Fleury Loiret) - left the club with Chernoivanenko joined in Russia by left wing Siraba Dembele.

Due to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, where Vardar were represented by six players, their preparation for this season has started later than normal, but no less successful as the team of head coach Indira Kastratovic won the ‘Vinko Kandija’ test tournament held in Ljubljana, Slovenia where she saw her side beat 2011 Women’s EHF Champions League winners Larvik twice in the test matches.

Those friendlies – as well as those taking place during the season - will be one key to success, says manager Ana Stojkov.

“We have a deficiency of strong matches because our national league is so weak,” she said. “We must always look to play friendly matches. In general, we have three years of Champions League experience, we have five new players and our coach will do the best to fit them in the team.”

For Herrem, the Norwegian expects a steep road towards the goal of qualifying for Budapest, starting with their group B matches against Hungarian league runners-up FTC Rail-Cargo Hungaria, Russian champions Astrakhanochka and German Cup winners HC Leipzig. “There are a lot of good teams this year like Rostov, Györ or Bucuresti," she said.“It's going to be a hard way to the FINAL4, but if we play like a team and play with heart and soul, anything can happen. We need to focus on one team at the time; first game, 100% focus on the strong FTC.

“I am really looking forward to starting in the Champions League,” continued Herrem. “These games are so much fun to play, every game matters and these are the kind of games I love to play.

“FTC are a strong team, Leipzig run a lot, Astrakhan have many good players so it’s going to be hard, but it’s Champions League, so we have to be ready for every game.”

For manager Ana Stojkov, Leipzig are well-known from the past two seasons, while it will be the first duels with FTC (“a team, we should not underestimate”) and Astrakhan (“a young, progressing side”). In general, those international encounters are extremely important for her, the club and the whole country.

“This is the most prestigious competition in all sports as well as in handball,” she said Stojkov who works under Vardar’s new sport director and successor of Tanja Medved, former Russian international Eduard Koksharov.

“Therefore many teams would like to take part - and we have that privilege. From year-to-year we recognise an increasingly developing love for handball [here], and, most importantly, both Vardar’s teams in the men’s and women’s competition can promote our country in Europe in a good way.”

HC Vardar (MKD)

Qualification for the Women’s EHF Champions League Season 2016/17: Macedonian champions

Newcomers: Mayssa Raquel De Oliveira Pessoa (CSM Bucuresti), Camilla Herrem (Team Tvis Holstebro), Dziyana Ilyina (HC Gomel), Tamara Mavsar (RK Krim Mercator), Alexandra Lacrabere (Union Mios Biganos – Begles)
Left the club: Dragana Petkovska (HC Vardar SCJS), Itana Grbic (ZRK Buducnost), Siraba Dembele (Rostov-Don), Maja Sokac (Ankara Yenimahalle BSK), Olga Chernoivanenko (Rostov-Don) and Ikhneva Alena (Fleury Loiret)

Coach: Indira Kastratovic (since 2012)
Team captain: Inna Suslina

Opponents in the group matches: Group B - FTC Rail-Cargo Hungaria, Astrakhanochka, HC Leipzig

Women’s EHF Champions League records:
Participations (including 2016/17 season): 4
Semi-final: 2013/14, 2014/15, 2015/16 (each third-ranked at EHF FINAL4)

Other European competition records:
EHF Cup - Last 16: 2012/13

Domestic records:
Macedonian champions: 4 times (2013, 2014, 2015, 2016)
Macedonian Cup winners: 4 times (1995, 2014, 2015, 2016)

TEXT: Bjorn Pazen/amc