Debutants, last chances and title defence: The journey of four unique teamsArticle
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FEATURE: The Women’s EHF FINAL4 2018 involves four teams with very different stories – debutants, long-time participants, defending champions and a powerhouse with perhaps the most dangerous shooter in women’s handball.

Debutants, last chances and title defence: The journey of four unique teams

The Women’s EHF FINAL4 has arrived – and every team that reached the EHF Champions League’s ultimate destination has a unique story. For five-time participants HC Vardar, the FINAL4 2018 represents a ‘last chance’ for the current line-up to claim the trophy before they go their separate ways this summer. For their semi-final opponents Rostov-Don, arriving at the FINAL4 represents an historic achievement, as they make their debut at the event. Györi Audi ETO KC hope to reclaim the trophy won in 2017, while Bucuresti aim to repeat their 2016 success.

On Friday, the FINAL4 teams participated in a media call where they shared their last thoughts before the games, followed by a meet and greet with fans. The event at Heroes’ Square took place alongside various promotional activities set up for the Women’s EHF FINAL4.

Vardar and Rostov will meet for the second semi-final at 18:00 on Saturday, after Györ take on their 2016 final opponents CSM Bucuresti at 15:15 – the last step before they have the chance to become the first side ever to defend a title won at the EHF FINAL4.

“I think we have good confidence. I think we have struggled a lot this season with injuries and we’ve shown how strong we are as a team – so in this way we are confident that we overcame all these obstacles,” says Györ centre back Nycke Groot.

Martin’s last stand with Györ

The defending champions will have a certain swansong of their own, as coach Ambros Martin will leave the team he led to three titles in six years to join Rostov for next season.

“He is very good at motivating us. He is a very good trainer tactically, very sharp. I like this very much in a trainer. I just want to be prepared and he’s helping with this a lot,” says Groot.

Groot’s fellow centre back Stine Oftedal, playing in her first Champions League season despite being an established star for Norway, is focused on how to beat Bucuresti’s defence:

“They play a really compact defence, they want to get out in the middle, force us to take some shots. It’s compact, tough,” says Oftedal. “I hope that we will find some openings for sure and we have some tactics.”

Though Györ enter the FINAL4 as title defenders, with the knowledge that it was their semi-final opponents CSM who they beat to win the 2017 trophy, both sides agree the chances are equal. Bucuresti’s Cristina Neagu, who was announced as the EHF Champions League All-star Left Back for the fourth time in a row on Friday, believes the Hungarian team can profit a little from their home advantage:

“I think the chances are equal. They have a little advantage because every season they are playing at home in front of their own crowd, maybe 10,000 people, and for sure it’s nicer. They have the biggest support at the FINAL4 every time, but still I don’t see any favourites in this game tomorrow,” says Neagu.  

“Hopefully, I really hope, that our goalkeepers will have a big day tomorrow because I think it’s really important in these kinds of games,” adds Neagu, echoing the thoughts of many when discussing the FINAL4, including Györ coach Martin.

The importance of goalkeepers

Rostov-Don goalkeeper Mayssa Pessoa is playing her third straight FINAL4 after winning the trophy with CSM in 2016, then playing with Vardar in 2017.

“I think I give luck for the clubs! I don’t know,” laughs Pessoa. “The team is really motivated. This was the objective for all players, for all the club, to come here, but why not? We can even go to the final and do something bigger, so let’s see.”

Pessoa agrees that her position is one of the most important at the FINAL4: “I think everybody knows that this is a very special position. You are always alone and if you don’t give your maximum, you cannot help the team. So I think yes, it is like 50% of the team. You need to be great to help the team. When they are down, you need to pull them up.”

“It doesn’t matter which team – we will fight”

Rostov’s debut at the FINAL4 shows that women’s handball in Russia is returning to the highest level in Europe. The achievement comes after seven of their players won Russia’s first Olympic title in 2016.

“I think we are growing,” says 2016 Olympic MVP Anna Vyakhireva. “Now we are in the FINAL4, a Russian club, so I think it’s really, really exciting for me and for the other girls – and I hope it’s not the last time! But I think we are really, really growing every year, and trying to create maybe something new – you know our teams, we have so many young players, good players, and I think we will get better and better every year. I hope so.”

While Rostov played both CSM and Györ already this season, they have yet to face Vardar in a Champions League match.

“We played against them last summer and we did good, but it was just a preparation camp for this season so we cannot say something concrete,” says Vyakhireva. “Here at the FINAL4, there cannot be some easy games, so it doesn’t matter which team – we will fight.”

“Whoever has the best defence will win the Champions League”

Vardar centre back Andrea Lekic hopes this will be the Macedonia’s side’s year to take the title, after finishing third in 2014, 2015 and 2016, then qualifying for their first final in 2017 – but she does not underestimate Rostov’s experience.

“If you look at their roster, those are all players who are experienced, they have the titles. You know when you come in these kinds of matches the most important is that you are going to give your maximum,” says Lekic, who will move to CSM alongside current Vardar players Dragana Cvijic and Jovanka Radicevic next season. Cvijic is a key part of Vardar’s defensive line-up, and believes it is at this end of the court that the title will be decided:

“In defence we must play hard against Rostov, because they play very good one-against-one, and we must be hard like every game,” says Cvijic. “Defence for me is the most important. We prepared very good defence for Champions League for all season and now for the FINAL4. I think this is the key for every team – whoever has the best defence will win the Champions League.”

TEXT: Courtney Gahan / br