Former title-winning coaches clash in MOTWArticle
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QUARTER-FINAL PREVIEW: The first-leg quarter-finals see Kielce host PSG for the Match of the Week, defending champions Vardar travel to Kiel, and surprise packages Nantes and Skjern meet in an historic battle

Former title-winning coaches clash in MOTW

Three former or current VELUX EHF Champions League title holders, last season’s finalists and two surprise package sides will take the court for three quarter-final clashes on Saturday and Sunday. The Match of the Week will be staged in Kielce, while Kiel lock horns with defending champions Vardar and Nantes face Skjern.

• Two coaches who have won the Champions League – Kielce’s Talant Dujshebaev and PSG’s Noka Serdarusic – meet in Poland for the MOTW
• Two former THW Players – Joan Canellas and Rogerio Moraes – return to Kiel
• Two quarter-final debutants clash in Nantes

MOTW: PGE Vive Kielce (POL) vs Paris Saint-Germain Handball (FRA)
Saturday 21 April, 18:30 local time, live on

Two years ago, these teams met for the VELUX EHF Champions League Semi-final at the FINAL4 in Cologne, and Kielce went on to sensationally become Champions League winners one day later in a remarkable final against Veszprém. In 2017, Paris made it to Cologne and came one step closer to the trophy as they reached the final against Vardar, while Kielce were knocked out in the Last 16 by Montpellier. Now, coach Talant Dujshebaev’s team face a French side on the way to Cologne again.

Kielce beat Rhein-Neckar Löwen twice in the Last 16, while group winners PSG skipped the first knock-out round.

The hosts will be able to count on goalkeeper Filip Ivic, who has been off court since March due to an elbow surgery and will now make his international comeback after already returning to the Polish league. Four former or current World Handball Players of the Year from PSG (Thierry Omeyer, Nikola Karabatic, Mikkel Hansen and Daniel Narcisse) will face the only Pole ever to receive the award, Kielce’s other goalkeeper Slawomir Szmal. Both Szmal and Narcisse will end their careers after this season.  

“Paris are one of the best teams in the world, and they have the advantage of having the second leg on home ground. But we will do everything we can – we have proved that we can beat any team, mainly on home ground, with the help of our fans,” says Kielce’s young right wing Blaz Janc.

While Kielce came out on top in the 2015/16 semi-final, they lost both group matches this season. In the end, PSG ranked eight points and four positions better than their hosts for Saturday’s match.

Funnily enough, the coaches have met in a Champions League Final once before, when Dujshebaev and Ciudad Real were successful in 2008 against Noka Serdarusic and Kiel.

THW Kiel (GER) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Sunday 22 April, 17:00 local time, live on

“We want to break this series or curse,” says Vardar left back Joan Canellas before his return to his former club. “This series or curse” refers to the fact that, in the history of the VELUX EHF FINAL4, a champion team has never defended the title one year later in Cologne. On five occasions, the defending champions did not even make it to the ultimate VELUX EHF Champions League destination.

“Though we are the defending champions, we are not automatically the favourites to win at Kiel. I know how tough it is for any away team to play at Kiel,” says Canellas, who joined Vardar from the German team in 2016, adding: “Our only advantage in this duel is that we have the rematch at home.”

While Vardar skipped the Last 16 as winners of Group A, Kiel eliminated Pick Szeged in the first knock-out round. Vardar have made it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 once; Kiel (alongside Barcelona) are the record participants, having qualified for the event six times – and raised two trophies.

There may be one good omen for Vardar: When they made it to Cologne for the first time last year, after three straight quarter-final eliminations, it was a German team they left behind – Kiel’s neighbours, Flensburg.

“We have the highest respect for Vardar. They are the defending champions, they defended their SEHA League trophy in a dominant way and they had the best defence of all Champions League teams to deservedly take the top position after the group phase,” says THW playmaker Miha Zarabec. “It is my personal dream to clinch the berth for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 with this great THW team. We expect two true battles.”

Kiel and Vardar have locked horns only four times, the last in 2010, before the engagement of the Macedonian club’s owner Sergey Samsonenko and the bolstering of the squad. Kiel won three times, and Vardar took one home victory.

Aside from Spanish EHF EURO champion Canellas, Brazilian line player Rogerio Moraes is a former THW player.

HBC Nantes (FRA) vs Skjern Handbold (DEN)
Sunday 22 April, 19:00 local time, live on

Which surprise package will finally go all the way? This is the main question prior to the duel between the French and Danish clubs. “It must have been great odds, if you had bet on this quarter-final before the season, but I don’t think anybody did it,” says Nantes German left wing Dominik Klein.

His club, Nantes, eliminated Meshkov Brest in the Last 16. Group winners Skjern beat Motor Zaporozhye in the Group C+D play-offs, before causing the biggest sensation of this season by eliminating Telekom Veszprém in the first knock-out round.

Though their domestic performances were extremely shaky, Nantes have been a stronghold in the VELUX EHF Champions League 2017/18 – especially in home matches. HBC are unbeaten on home ground this season and managed to beat the likes of Vardar and Barcelona in the group phase, finally finishing in third position in Group A – in what is only their second VELUX EHF Champions League season.

Skjern on the other hand, are currently dominant in the Danish league, winning the regular season. The team of 2014 Champions League winner Anders Eggert (with Flensburg) are in their fourth season in the premier club competition. Therefore, it is no surprise that the duel on Sunday will be the first ever official match between these two sides.

Skjern are the first Danish team since AG Kobenhavn, in 2012, to make it to the Champions League Quarter-finals – and just as Kobenhavn did, they hope to go all the way. Nantes are quarter-final debutants.

“We have a massive programme of tough and crucial matches in league and Champions League, but it is always our aim to win them all,” says Skjern coach Ole Norgaard before travelling to Nantes.

The duel will bring together two of the competition’s currently strongest goalkeepers: Nantes’ Cyril Dumoulin and Skjern’s penalty killer Tibor Ivanisevic.

TEXT: Björn Pazen / cg