Veszprém’s last chance to fight for the topArticle
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GROUP A PREVIEW: The Hungarian side host Barcelona for the Match of the Week, while PSG can profit from the stumbling Catalans.

Veszprém’s last chance to fight for the top

It is the first VELUX EHF Champions League round after the World Championship, and Group A re-starts on Saturday with not only the Match of the Week in Veszprém, but also with the first club matches at home for seven newly crowned world champions.

Despite their away tasks, the German sides Flensburg and Kiel are light favourites at Plock and Schaffhausen.

•    Five World Championship medallists clash in the Match of the Week: Telekom Veszprém vs FC Barcelona Lassa
•    Barcelona already qualified for the knock-out stage, and PSG – whose coaches Noka Serdarusic and Staffan Olsson just extended their contracts – can follow
•    Flensburg’s Swedes Johan Jakobsson (severe concussion) and Tobias Karlsson (torn tendon) are ruled-out for the upcoming weeks or even month
•    After beating Kiel on home ground, Plock hope for another upset against a German team when they meet Flensburg on Sunday
•    Schaffhausen fired their coach right before Saturday’s clash against Kiel

Telekom Veszprém (HUN) vs FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP)
Saturday 11 February, 17:30 local time, Match of the Week

Can Veszprém bring new tension to the group and reduce the six-point gap to Barcelona? Those are the major questions prior to the Match of the Week.

After Veszprém announced that the era of Xavier Sabate will come to an end and Flensburg coach Ljubomir Vranjes will take over from next season, fans and experts are eager to see the reaction of the team.

Winning only four of nine group matches so far is definitely not the level the club had hoped for. Their 2017 opener against Barcelona, who are already qualified for the knock-out stage, is therefore a perfect opportunity for the 2015 and 2016 VELUX EHF Champions League finalists to underline their ambitions.

On the other hand, the duel of Spanish-born coaches Sabate and Xavi Pascual could open the gate for the Catalans to finish on top of the group.

In the all-time club standing of the EHF Champions League, Barcelona are on top with 190 wins, 17 draws and 46 defeats from 253 matches so far, while Veszprém are third ranked with 155 victories, 12 draws and 64 defeats after nine rounds of the current group phase.

Five medallists from the World Championship 2017 in France will be on court on Saturday: Barcelona’s three French world champions Cedric Sorhaindo, Dika Mem and Timothy N’Guessan, and Veszprém’s Slovenian bronze medallists Blaz Blagotinsek and Gasper Marguc.

The 18th duel of the two powerhouses (12-1-4 in favour of Barcelona) is also a re-match of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2014/15 final. The last time Barcelona beat Veszprém at home was six years ago, but they were victorious in the first-leg clash this season with a final score of 26:23.

Kadetten Schaffhausen (SUI) vs THW Kiel (GER)
Saturday 11 February, 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

It was not only Flensburg and Veszprém that made headlines recently with news of their coaches, but also Kadetten Schaffhausen. After losing the semi-final of the Swiss Cup against Wacker Thun last weekend, the domestic champions fired their Danish-born coach Lars Walther.

At least until the end of the season, former Kadetten and Slovakia national team playmaker Petr Kukucka will lead the team. “It is a big honour for me to take over this club,” the 34-year-old was quoted on the club’s website.

The 27:25 victory against Plock in their last group match of 2016 was the first Champions League victory this season for the Swiss champions, who also have the postponed game at Flensburg on 8 March ahead. Kiel played Flensburg just this week, losing a true Bundesliga thriller away 29:30.

“We are happy that for the first time in years we are not hit hard by injuries from World or European championships,” said THW coach Alfred Gislason, who is confident of taking a clearer victory at Schaffhausen than in the first leg on home ground (32:29).

The only THW player missing is Steffen Weinhold, who was ruled out before France 2017.

Paris Saint-Germain Handball (FRA) vs Bjerringbro-Silkeborg (DEN)
Saturday 11 February, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV

13 days after the World Championship party started in Paris, PSG re-start on an international level at home.

Coaching duo Noka Serdarusic and Staffan Olsson recently extended their contracts for one more season, and Danish defence boss Henrik Mollgaard also prolonged his until 2020 – now Paris begin the hunt for Barcelona and the group’s top position against Bjerringbro.

After the 36:30 win in the first leg in Denmark, and boosted by seven players being part of the world champion squad, PSG are the clear favourite on home ground. The French team have not lost any Champions League match at home since 19 November 2014, when they were defeated 25:27 by Kiel.

In case of a victory against Bjerringbro and a Barcelona defeat, PSG will move to the top of the group again.

Orlen Wisla Plock (POL) vs SG Flensburg-Handewitt (GER)
Sunday 12 February, 17:30 local time, live on ehfTV

The first leg win at home (22:20 after a clear deficit) was a tough nut for Flensburg to crack, and gives Plock hope to continue their streak against German sides. The Polish runners-up beat Kiel on home ground then took a draw at the THW den.

Another home win would clearly bolster Plock’s race for the Last 16, as in the optimum case the distance to BSV could increase to four points.

Flensburg are hit hard by two long-term injuries of Swedish players: Right back Johan Jakobsson is suffering from a severe concussion, which occurred during preparation for the World Championship, and defence chief Tobias Karlsson tore a tendon in the final training session before the Bundesliga clash against Kiel.

Following the announcement that Ljubomir Vranjes will leave the club after this season to become coach of Veszprém and the Hungarian national team, the search for a successor is open again. Former SG player Christian Berge, who steered Norway to their sensational silver medal at the World Championship, declined to join the club as coach.

TEXT: Bjorn Pazen / cg