Hard hope to end the Austrian curseArticle
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FEATURE: Lake Constance side Alpla HC Hard want to become the first Austrian club to qualify for the VELUX EHF Champions League group phase since 2008.

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Hard hope to end the Austrian curse

No Austrian men's team has qualified for the group phase of the VELUX EHF Champions League since 2008/09. Since then, all attempts have failed. Last season Bregenz Handball missed out after a narrow loss to Portugal's ABC/U Minho, and between 2012 and 2015 Alpla HC Hard tried and failed.

Now Alpla Hard again hope to end the Austrian qualification curse. Hard were part of the group phase once, in the 2003/04 season, and come into the qualification tournament this year on a roll.

After missing their fifth straight title in the Austrian league in 2016, they made it again in June 2017 by dethroning defending champions Fivers Margareten Vienna in a thrilling final series. After winning the first leg on home ground 27:26, Hard became the first team to beat the Fivers on home ground after more than two years, taking the title 32:30 after two extra-times.

It was coach Petr Hrachovec's first Austrian trophy. Hrachovec joined Hard in early 2016, succeeding Markus Burger, who led the team to four Austrian championship trophies. Hrachovec previously steered Swiss neighbours Kadetten Schaffhausen to three championship titles.

Hrachovec brings experience of the Champions League from his time playing in Switzerland.

“I told my team how great it feels to be part of this greatest of all club competitions. For me, for the players, for the club and all of Austrian handball it would be brilliant to make it to the group phase,” he says.

Pressure on Presov

Originally, Hard were to host the qualification tournament, but they had to abstain due to organisational reasons. Thus, the Austrians will fly to Presov on Friday to fight for the last remaining spot in the Champions League group phase. On Saturday, they duel with the hosts, the Slovak champions, in the semi-final.

“Of course Presov have an advantage as the hosts of this event, but we have analysed them very well. Presov are physically strong and have a great defence, but I am sure and confident that we have our chances and will continue our Champions League dream,” says Hrachovec.

For the Czech-born coach, all teams competing in this qualification tournament – Portuguese side Sporting CP face Finland's Cocks in the second semi-final - are on a similar level.

“Maybe Sporting are slight favourites in the other match, but in general anything can happen,” Hrachovec believes.

Hard star Gerald Zeiner - Austrian international and back court ace – is also cautiously hopeful of success.

“It would be great if the time would come that Austrian handball returns to the group phase. But it will be incredibly hard for us,” he says.

However Zeiner thinks Hard have an easier task ahead than their opponents.

“Presov are under pressure, they must win,” he says. “We have no pressure, we hope to win. But still I guess the chances to proceed to the final are 40:60 from our point of view.”

Starting the season right

Hard proved their readiness for the Champions League qualification by winning their first domestic trophy of the season last weekend. In a re-match of last season’s final series, Hard beat Fivers 32:24 in the Austrian Super-Cup.

“It's always brilliant to start the season right with a trophy. I hope that this victory will boost our confidence for the Champions League qualification and is an extra motivation,” says Hrachovec.

For Zeiner it was “a great dress rehearsal, not more, as this competition is not comparable with the Champions League”.

All of Austrian handball will be hoping for a match against Sporting in Sunday's final. The Portuguese side features Austrian right back Janko Bozovic, a key player for Sporting.

“First we focus on Presov,” says Zeiner, “but a final against Janko would make the tournament even more special.”

TEXT: Björn Pazen / jh