Six takeaways from the Last 16 actionArticle
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TALKING POINTS: The knockout stage of the VELUX EHF Champions League has begun and the first leg of the Last 16 treated us with a lot of close matches
»2018-19 Men's News

Six takeaways from the Last 16 action

The first round of battles in the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 is over and the duels were a great advertisement for the competition.

Out of the six games in the first leg, five resulted in a two-goal difference or less, which leaves great room for turnovers and drama in the return leg this week.

Here are six talking points after last week’s matches.

Symbolic six in the Balkan battle

What was expected to be an exciting Balkan battle between HC PPD Zagreb and HC Vardar became one-way traffic: the 2017 champions eased to a 27:18 win in the Match of the Week.

Vardar were sixth in the most recent EHF power ranking and they justified that position with their performance in Zagreb. Their sixth spot is symbolic, since they kept Zagreb only at six goals for the whole first half in the game (14:6).

Zagreb have a near-impossible mission in the return match in Skopje. If they are going to have a chance, they need to find their way around Dejan Milosavljev, who was incredible in Vardar’s goal.

Löwen on track to end their curse

Rhein-Neckar Löwen have been eliminated in the Last 16 for four consecutive seasons, but this time they have a two-goal lead after their first leg against last year’s finalists HBC Nantes, 34:32.

This was the first home victory for the Mannheim lions in a Last 16 match since 2014, which was followed by four home losses in a row at this stage the following seasons. They are well placed to end their curse but are far from safe before the return leg in France.

Historic draw for Motor

Neighbouring national champions HC Motor Zaporozhye and PGE VIVE Kielce provided great drama in their first-leg match in Ukraine. The game ended in dramatic fashion, with a last-second penalty saving a 33:33 draw for the hosts in this thrilling match, which was a perfect advertisement for the competition.

Motor are in the Last 16 for the third time, but this marked their first draw after losing the four previous matches. Kielce, the 2016 champions, might be favourites to clinch the quarter-final berth but the Polish side should prepare for another intense battle.

Veszprém deny Sporting another historic moment

Sporting CP wrote history by becoming the first Portuguese club to reach the Last 16 since the current format of competition was introduced in 2009/10. In their clash against Telekom Veszprém HC, they came close to a historic victory. Sporting were one goal ahead at half-time (15:14) and it wasn’t until the last 10 minutes that Veszprém were able to turn things around for a victory, 30:28.

Sporting will face a difficult challenge in Hungary in the return leg while Veszprém hope to reach the quarter-final again after missing out last season with a defeat against Skjern.

No room for complacency in Flensburg

After the repeat of their Last 16 clash two years ago, SG Flensburg-Handewitt are in a strong position against HC Meshkov Brest following their 30:28 away win. Still, Brest deserved praise. Flensburg were 30:22 ahead with six minutes left, but as Brest scored the last six goals of the game to keep the tie much tighter than would have been the case after an eight-goal defeat.

Even though things are not in Brest’s favour for the second leg, this 6:0 run will surely give them more hope to proceed from the Last 16 or the first time. Flensburg will have to be on their toes, which perhaps is a good thing and keeps them from getting complacent.

Szeged struggle but come out on top

As the second-ranked team from Group B, MOL-Pick Szeged headed into their Last 16 tie against Orlen Wisla Plock, one of the teams that advanced from the Group C/D play-offs,  as the big favourites. But  the Hungarian side struggled to get their attack going, but had a late 7:2 run leave the court in Poland with a two-goal victory, 22:20.

This duel, however, is far from over yet. Plock also started the play-offs with a home defeat - against Bjerringbro-Silkeborg - but came out all guns blazing in the away match of the return leg. Plock might need some more saves from goalkeeper Adam Morawski like this one…

TEXT: Andri Yrkill Valsson / ew