Previous champions duel for place in finalArticle
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SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW: The two latest winners of the Women's Challenge Cup, Zagreb (2017) and Gran Canaria (2016), play each other in Croatia while Turkish side Ardesen host Lublin in this weekend's first leg

Previous champions duel for place in final

Two teams which have dominated the Women’s Challenge Cup over the past two years go head to head in this season’s semi-final.

Defending champions HC Lokomotiva Zagreb will take on the winners from 2015/16, Rocasa Gran Canaria, in the first leg in Croatia on Saturday evening.

Also, Ardesen GSK are chasing their first ever European final when they meet former EHF Cup winners MKS Perla Lublin in the other semi-final, with the first leg scheduled in Turkey for Sunday evening.

Facing fierce competition

Zagreb are trying to become the first team to successfully defend their title from the previous season as no club have lifted the trophy two years in a row since the Challenge Cup replaced the City Cup in 2000.

But they will face fierce competition in the semi-final as the 2016 champions, Gran Canaria, are coming to Croatia on Sunday, followed by the second leg in Spain on Sunday 15 April.

Lokomotiva and Gran Canaria also played each other last season. Zagreb won that quarter-final tie by just two goals on aggregate: they won the home leg 29:24 before losing the away game 26:23.

Lokomotiva head coach Nenad Sostaric, who is also in charge of Croatia’s national women’s team, is looking forward to meeting the Spanish side again.

“I expect two interesting top games. We are prepared to run for 120 minutes as we respect Rocasa very much,” says Sostaric, whose counterpart from Gran Canaria, Yubal Moreno, also expresses his respect.

“We know it will be difficult as Lokomotiva are the champions from last year,” Moreno says. “We aim to play a good match in Zagreb in order to have every chance in the second match at home.”

Great days for Turkish handball

It has been quite a European season for Turkish women’s handball so far.

While in the EHF Cup Kastamonu Belediyesi GSK have made it among the last four teams, in the Challenge Cup Ardesen are appearing in their maiden European semi-final.

Ardesen start at home against Lublin, a household name in international women’s handball. The Polish side reached the Women's EHF Champions League Quarter-finals twice (in 1999/2000 and 2001/02) and won the EHF Cup (2001).

Both head coaches express considerable respect for the opponent ahead of the first leg in Turkey on Sunday, and the second leg in Poland seven days later.

“Lublin are certainly an opponent we respect, especially as they have played in European tournaments for so many years and with success,” Ardesen coach Ali Ihsan Tekin says.

Playing the first match at home is “a big advantage for us,” says Tekin, as Ardesen will try to open up a gap of as many goals as possible before travelling to Poland.

Lublin, however, have their sights also firmly set on taking the next step.

“We definitely want to be part of the final. Having reached the semi-final, we obviously want to go further,” says Lublin coach Robert Lis, adding they have analysed many of Ardesen’s games in the domestic league as well as in the Challenge Cup.

“So we feel well prepared,” Lis says. “We do respect this team, and we are prepared for a tough battle, knowing that it is not easy to win in Turkey.”

Lis expects that his team might benefit from their bigger international experience: “The girls from Lublin know how to deal with pressure and high tension.”

TEXT: Peter Bruun / ew