Skjern make history, Montpellier end Barcelona’s FINAL4 dreamArticle
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LAST 16 REVIEW: Skjern eliminate mighty Veszprém against all odds, while Montpellier protect their first-leg lead for two of the biggest upsets of the VELUX EHF Champions League season

Skjern make history, Montpellier end Barcelona’s FINAL4 dream

Skjern Handbold made it to the VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-finals for the first time in their history after sensationally eliminating Telekom Veszprém HC, while Montpellier HB caused an upset of their own against FC Barcelona Lassa.

Both teams made the most of their first-leg advantages to claim the aggregate wins and with them, tickets to the next stage, despite losing the away legs of their respective Last 16 clashes on Saturday evening.

• Skjern are the first Danish side to reach the quarter-finals since 2012
• Montpellier qualify for the quarter-final stage for the second consecutive time
• Veszprém will miss the VELUX EHF Champions League FINAL4 for the first time since the 2012/13 season
• After missing the VELUX EHF FINAL4 only twice in the last nine seasons, Barcelona fail to progress to the quarter-finals
• Nine goals from Veszprém centre back Petar Nenadic represent the highest scoring record of the evening

MOTW: Telekom Veszprém HC (HUN) vs Skjern Handbold (DEN) 34:29 (16:13)
Aggregate result: 59:61

Veszprém entered the match fired up to turn the tables after losing the first leg away by seven goals. When Dejan Manaskov made it 10:7 for Veszprém after a clever pass from Momir Ilic, Skjern coach Ole Norgaard had to react with a timeout to slow the progress of the Hungarian giants.

The red sea of enthusiastic fans pushed Veszprém to their limits, but Skjern did not lose their ground. A change of goalkeepers for the hosts, with the introduction of Mirko Alilovic, was effective, but his counterpart Emil Nielsen also showed signs of brilliance as the Danish side managed to keep the aggregate in their favour at the end of the first half.

The Scandinavian back-court duo Jesper Konradsson and Kasper Søndergaard were two of the main threats for the visitors, scoring five goals each, whilst Anders Eggert added seven.  

Veszprem feel the pressure

After a bright start to the second period, two suspensions for Veszprém switched the momentum in favour of Skjern. With the time progressing, the Hungarian team seemed incredibly nervous, resulting in bad passes and unconvincing combinations.  

Penalty king Tibor Ivanisevic stepped in in the 44th minute to remind everyone of his brilliant penalty-saving success, and Skjern soon levelled the score courtesy of Anders Eggert (24:24).   

A change to 4-2 defence and the productive Petar Nenadic (nine goals) gave Veszprém hope as they pulled four goals ahead with eight minutes remaining, but Skjern held on to the aggregate advantage.

A symbolic goal from Ivanisevic ended all hopes for the Hungarian side, as they tried to close the gap, but finished with the bitter taste of a five-goal win that was not enough – the Last 16 clash was lost in the first match in Denmark.  

Veszprém coach Ljubomir Vranjes did not hide his disappointment after the game: “I am sad, disappointed, angry. We had to take risks. We played well today but the problem was the game in Demark. There was a lot of pressure on us today. We tried everything, we tried to overcome the seven-goal deficit, but we did not manage it. I am the coach and I am responsible, and it is my mistake we did not qualify into the next round.”

His counterpart Norgaard was obviously a happy man: “We played two great matches with an exceptional opponent. It is a great achievement for us, although it was really difficult. We played our best game as a team, underlined by quality individual performances.”

Skjern will play the winner of the HBC Nantes versus Meshkov Brest tie, where the French side are closer to the quarter-finals after a convincing 32:24 win in the first leg.

FC Barcelona Lassa (ESP) vs Montpellier HB (FRA) 30:28 (15:14)
Aggregate result: 55:56

Anything other than proceeding to the VELUX EHF FINAL 4 was deemed a failure for Barcelona before the season, but the Spanish powerhouse were eliminated before the quarter-final phase of the VELUX EHF Champions League 2017/18. For 53 minutes on Saturday night, Barcelona’s fans believed in a comeback after the team lost the first leg 25:28 in France. However, the hosts failed to protect a six-lead goal that would have seen them through.

“It was one of the hardest defeats in years for us. We hoped to go ahead and win this tie, but it was not possible,” said Barcelona centre back Raul Entrerrios. “We had so many options during the match. We made every effort with the support of Palau as always, but we didn’t succeed.”

Barcelona’s start was far from what their fans and coach Xavi Pascual expected. A 33 per cent shooting efficiency and a flurry of turnovers in attack enabled Montpellier to build an incredible 6:2 lead after only seven minutes, as the packed Palau Blaugrana was reduced to silence.

Spurred by youngsters Dika Mem and Aleix Gomez, Barcelona recorded a 6:1 partial to take the lead, 9:8. It certainly looked like Barcelona were going to run riot, but a well-taken timeout by coach Patrice Canayer stopped the free fall for Montpellier.

Montpellier backs Valentin Porte and Diego Simonet were in particularly fine form, scoring three times each in the first half and leaving Barcelona with only a narrow 15:14 lead at half-time.

A change in defence helps Montpellier

A pair of Valero Rivera penalty goals saw Barcelona pile the pressure on Montpellier, as the Spanish side flirted with the three-goal gap for the first time. As their fans cheered louder and louder, Barcelona took advantage of Montpellier’s defensive woes and jumped to a 21:17 lead, while goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas reached a 35 per cent saving efficiency.

Another 6:1 partial, identical to the one from the first half, propelled Barcelona to a more comfortable lead. Montpellier missed shot after shot and Perez de Vargas recorded save after save, and the French side only managed to score once in eight minutes.

But the game was far from over. A 4:0 run from Montpellier, built on Barcelona’s misses in attack, cut Barcelona’s lead to only two goals, 26:24 – and the French side saw that the quarter-final berth was in reach.

Montpellier deployed a more aggressive defence, which covered Barcelona playmaker Aron Palmarsson and turned the game on its head, as the hosts could not find a way to score easy goals. Under immense pressure, the French side kept their cool and ultimately lost, 30:28, but their eyes were filled with tears of joy, as they took a one-goal win on aggregate, 56:55.

Montpellier will meet SG Flensburg-Handewitt in the quarter-finals.

TEXT: Tomas Cuncik / Adrian Costieu / cg