Two experienced sides, two debutantsArticle
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QUALIFICATION GROUP 2 PREVIEW: One place in the group matches is up for grabs in Nordhausen, where hosts Thüringer HC are expected to be the favourites.

Two experienced sides, two debutants

HC Vardar, Larvik and FTC Budapest are awaiting their fourth opponent in Group C of the Women’s EHF Champions League, with the open spot to be decided in the German city of Nordhausen this weekend.

• Either the champions from Austria, Spain or Sweden, or the hosts and German runners-up, will qualify for the group matches this weekend
• Each of the qualification Group 2 semi-finals are composed of one debutant and one team with extensive Champions League experience
• Hosts Thüringer HC are positioned as favourites to claim the group match place ahead of their semi-final against Mecalia Atletico Guardes

Thüringer HC (GER) vs Mecalia Atletico Guardes (ESP)
Saturday 9 September, 14:00 local time, live on

“We are the favourites and we take this role,” says Herbert Müller, coach of Thüringer HC, before hosting the qualification tournament. In contrast with the Spanish champions from the little town of A Guarda (10,000 inhabitants) in Galicia, THC have the experience of participating in the EHF Champions League steadily since 2011, including the quarter-finals in 2015.

For Mecalia, the qualification semi-final will be the first ever Champions League match in their club’s history. The Spanish side have participated in the Cup Winners’ Cup three times as well as contesting the Challenge Cup 2016/17, when they were eliminated by Höörs – semi-finalists in the second qualification match on Saturday in Nordhausen.

While the qualification tournament will be the first official match of the season for the hosts, Guardes already played the Spanish Super Cup, where they were defeated 26:28 by winners Gran Canaria.

“We analysed this match and we are aware of the typical Spanish way they play – quick and with a highly movable defence,” says Müller.

Along with the majority Spanish players, one of the best Argentinian internationals, Luciana Mendoza, and experienced Belarusian line player Alesia Kurchankova are part of the A Guarda squad. For left wing Naiara Egozkue, the qualification tournament will bring some memories, as she played for German club Bayer Leverkusen from 2012 to 2014.

The German runners-up hope for a boost from the stands and their three new arrivals from record domestic champions HC Leipzig: Saskia Lang, Alexandra Mazzucco and Anne Hubinger – all Germany national team players.

H 65 Höörs HK (SWE) vs Hypo Niederösterreich (AUT)
Saturday 9 September, 16:30 local time, live on

23 times in 23 years: Hypo Niederösterreich have been part of the EHF Champions League from the beginning in 1993 until 2016. This series of success – including four titles and two other appearances in the final – came to an end last season, when they were eliminated in the 2016/17 qualification stage by German runners-up HC Leipzig.

For the first time in history, a Champions League Group Phase was played without the 40-time Austrian champions.

Today, coach Martin Matuschkowitz can count on only two players from the previous top generation: goalkeeper Olga Sanko and back court ace Gorica Acimovic. Seven players left prior to this season – and the new arrivals are mostly young guns from Austria, plus experienced Icelandic line player Hildigunnur Einarsdottir (also arriving from Leipzig).

“The qualification will be extremely tough for us, but we like challenges,” says Matuschkowitz.

Their opponents, H 65 Höörs HK, pulled off a major surprise when they beat Sävehof in the final of the Swedish league – and now have their first Champions League appearance after winning the Challenge Cup in 2014 and making it to the final in 2017.

The team consists only of Swedish players, but two stars have left after raising the league trophy: Jessica Ryde has joined Danish runners-up FC Midtjylland and playmaker Cassandra Tollbring (sister of Jerry Tollbring) is now with Norwegian champions Larvik.

“We know Hypo Niederösterreich very well from previous seasons, and we do not fear them that much,” says Höörs coach Ola Månsson, for whom the hosts are the big favourites.

To be ready for a potential qualification final against THC, the Swedes even played some training matches at German clubs over the summer.

TEXT: Bjorn Pazen / cg