Crucial win for Barcelona as race for first place heats upArticle
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GROUP A REVIEW: Barcelona avenge last season's semi-final loss against Vardar with a win in a tense Match of the Week, while Plock take their first home victory of the season

Huge win for Barcelona, as race for first place heats up

The race for first place in Group A is back underway, after HC Vardar lost against FC Barcelona Lassa and HBC Nantes enjoyed their sixth VELUX EHF Champions League win in a row on Saturday night.

The battle for sixth place is also exciting, following IFK Kristianstad loss to Nantes and Orlen Wisla Plock’s hard-fought win versus HC PPD Zagreb.

• Vardar top the table, but only one point ahead of Nantes. The two teams will meet in two rounds' time
• Arpad Sterbik plays an excellent game for Vardar, but cannot stop a Barcelona win in the Match of the Week
• David Balaguer has the best match of his career in the VELUX EHF Champions League, scoring 11 times, with nine goals in the first half
• After 11 games in the competition, Plock take their second win

Orlen Wisla Plock (POL) vs HC Prvo plinarsko drustvo Zagreb (CRO) 27:24 (13:10)

It was a do-or-die game for both teams, as a defeat would leave them with little chance to progress to the next phase. After a 28:28 draw in the previous mutual game, the winner of Saturday’s opening encounter was primed to boost their chances to proceed.

The hosts enjoyed a great start to the match. Experienced line player Igor Vori looked unstoppable in the first 10 minutes, scoring three times for Zagreb. But the hosts still jumped to a 6:4 lead thanks to a 3:0 partial spurred by young left back Tomasz Gebala, who was also dangerous in the opening 10 minutes, tallying four in that period.

"We knew that it was going to be a very hard game for both teams. Our first step to today’s victory was to start this game with strong defence and we did it," said Plock coach Piotr Przybecki. "I am very satisfied that every player who appeared on the court did his job very well."

Zagreb came back to level the game at 8:8 after 19 minutes, but a 72 per cent shooting efficiency from Plock was enough to help the Polish side earn a 13:10 lead at the break.

With left back Damir Bicanic in particularly good form, scoring a game-high nine goals, the guests tried to close the gap. But the Croatian team were stopped by Plock’s back line and a lack of saves from their goalkeepers, while Plock took a 20:16 commanding lead.

A 3:0 partial helped Zagreb breathe new life and challenge the hosts’ advantage, as Plock led by only one, 20:19, with 15 minutes to go.

When Zagreb levelled the game, 23:23, with eight minutes remaining, Plock rode their luck and the fabulous atmosphere in their home arena. The Polish side finished the match stronger to record a 27:24 win – their second in 11 games in the competition this season.

"The start of the game was very poor from our side. After the break it looked much better, but we didn’t manage to equalise. It was a fair game and deserved victory of Orlen Wisla Plock," said Zagreb left wing Valentino Ravnic.

Plock are now on six points, while Zagreb are still last in the group with four points, with their chances to progress slimming from round to round.

IFK Kristianstad (SWE) vs HBC Nantes (FRA) 26:31 (12:13)

Riding a six-game winning streak – their longest ever in the VELUX EHF Champions League – Nantes were the favourites against Kristianstad, though the Swedish side had taken victories in their last two home games, against MOL-Pick Szeged and Orlen Wisla Plock.

A five-goal start from recently crowned EHF EURO champion David Balaguer Romeu saw Nantes take an early lead. But the Swedish side managed to stop the visitors’ offence and their flurry of fast breaks saw the hosts claim the upper hand, 7:6, after three goals from Danish right wing Tim Sörensen.

It was a superhuman effort from Balaguer, who brought Nantes back into the game, as the French side profited from the Spaniard’s incredible first half to enjoy a 13:12 lead at the break.

A 4:1 run to start the second period enabled Nantes to increase their lead – and from there, the French side never looked back.

Kristianstad were ultimately no match for Nantes, who earned their seventh win in a row to stay second in the group. The Swedish side are still sixth, with six points, level with Plock after Saturday’s results.

"We are happy because we knew this would be a difficult game with great importance for the home team," said Nantes coach Thierry Anti. "We had a very good defence that created fast goals, and we fought well over the entire match."

FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs HC Vardar (MKD) 29:28 (15:14)

It was a fierce game between Barcelona and Vardar, as the Spanish team looked to avenge their loss in the semi-finals last season. However, after only three minutes, the hosts were two goals down, with Vardar's defence – an aggressive 5-1 formation – looking as strong as ever.

Yet Barcelona never looked down and took the lead with a pair of fast breaks from Aitor Arino, until Spanish goalkeeper Arpad Sterbik found his rhythm for Vardar. Sterbik recorded seven saves before the 17th minute, and Vardar pulled in front to 10:8, with Vuko Borozan in impressive form after he missed the EHF EURO 2018 due to a car accident.

But Barcelona bounced back, and this time did not let the lead slip. The 15:14 lead at half-time grew to four goals early in the second half, as Raul Entrerrios continued his great form from the EURO.

With Gonzalo Perez de Vargas upping his game, there was no way back for Vardar, though they managed to reduce the gap to one goal in the final minutes.

"I think they were better than us today. We were really good in the first half, but we had a lot of problems with [Wael] Jallouz, who played very well before the half-time. In the second half, we always had two or three goals of difference, and we didn’t play our best match," said Vardar coach Raul Gonzalez.

Barcelona are third in the group with 14 points, and are hosting Plock next week, while Vardar are still first, with 18.

TEXT: Adrian Costeiu / cg