Sensational Vardar turn seven-goal deficit into final ticketArticle
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SEMI-FINAL REVIEW: 10 goals from Dainis Kristopans and an incredible fighting spirit extended the series of VELUX EHF FINAL4 surprises, as Barça Lassa let a clear advantage slip through their fingers
»2018-19 Men's News
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Sensational Vardar turn seven-goal deficit into final ticket

History repeated for Barça Lassa: In 2014, they were ahead by six goals in the semi-final against Flensburg with 10 minutes to go, and in the end they lost after a penalty shoot-out. On Saturday, the Catalan side were in front 25:19 in minute 47 of the second semi-final in Cologne, but it was HC Vardar who celebrated one of the biggest sensations in the history of the EHF FINAL4, winning 29:27.

The keys to the Macedonian side’s success were 10 goals from Latvian giant Dainis Kristopans, 14 saves from goalkeeper Dejan Milosavljev and a complete blackout from Barça in the final stages. For Vardar, history also repeated, as they beat Barcelona 26:25 in another semi-final thriller two years ago – and went on to win the final and the trophy.

With this defeat, one special dream came to an early end, as Barça’s French line player Ludovic Fabregas will not be able to defend his title after raising the trophy with Montpellier in 2018. While Vardar will face Veszprém in the final, Barça Lassa will lock horns with Kielce in the 3/4 placement match. 

  • The score of 16:9 at the break is the biggest ever in a semi-final at any men’s EHF FINAL4

  • No team has ever turned such a half-time gap into a win at the EHF FINAL4

  • Vardar wing Ivan Cupic has the chance to win his third trophy in Cologne, after 2016 with Kielce and 2017 with his current club

  • Dainis Kristopans is awarded best player of the match thanks to his 10 goals

Barça Lassa (ESP) vs HC Vardar (MKD) 27:29 (16:9)

In the first half, Vardar lacked ideas, means and inspiration in attack, and the world-class performance of goalkeeper Dejan Milosavljev was the only reason the 2017 Champions League winners were behind by ‘just’ seven goals at the break. The 9:16 score at half-time is the biggest gap in a VELUX EHF FINAL4 Semi-final since 2010 – and only three other teams in the event’s 10-year history scored just nine goals in the first period.

Barça Lassa defended in an extraordinary way – movable and well-prepared for all Vardar’s attacking tactics. Behind this defensive wall, goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas already had eight saves in his tally at the break. Barça cleverly transformed Vardar’s turnovers into counter-attack goals. Their wings and counter-attack experts Aleix Gomez and Victor Tomas scored seven of the 16 goals before the break, while others such as Thiagus Petrus Dos Santos added more fast break strikes.

Even two timeouts from coach Roberto Parrondo within eight minutes did not stop Vardar’s downswing. Barça forged ahead from 4:4 to 9:6 and 14:8, leaving Vardar chanceless behind when the sides entered the locker rooms.

Nothing changed in the initial stages of the second half, as Vardar remained on a lacklustre level, making an unexpected number of mistakes, mainly in attack. Until the score of 24:19, the gap stayed around six or seven goals, allowing Barça coach Xavi Pascual to continue with his extensive rotation, in order to save some power for what looked to be an inevitable final. Nothing seemed able to stop the record winners on their way to the ultimate match of the season.

Still the black-and-red dressed Vardar fans shouted inspiration for their team, and suddenly the squad were willing to pay their supporters back. Boosted by Dainis Kristopans’ hammer shots, strengthened defence and more saves from Milosavljev, the Macedonian team reduced the gap to 21:25, causing a Barça timeout in minute 49. When the neutral fans recognised that the underdogs needed their support in this previously unequal race, everything changed.

“The whole season we have fought like lions. Therefore, everything was possible. We fight for us. We give the best every time,” said Vardar’s Rogerio Moraes, while his teammate Stas Skube added: “Barça got, let’s say, in panic. They are good players but we got the energy, the second wind, because we came back from minus seven goals to minus three and they went down, made some easy mistakes. But this is our sport – you have to play the whole 60 minutes.”

Ivan Cupic netted a penalty for 24:26 with just over six minutes to go, and Barça had lost their rhythm completely – they were unable to score and had no idea how to stop now rampaging Vardar. After adding only one goal in more than 10 minutes, Barça conceded the equaliser for 26:26 off Rogerio Moraes in minute 57. Following a foul against Dainis Kristopans and a video referee decision, Petrus was sent off with a direct red card 135 seconds before the end.

With one more player on court, Vardar sensationally took their first advantage of the game when Karacic netted for 27:26. Finally it was the 10th Kristopans strike and a last-second goal from Vardar captain Stojanche Stoilov that propelled Vardar to their second Champions League Final.

“We played an incredible match in the first half – both defence and attack. In the second half we didn’t run as much as necessary,” said Barça playmaker Aron Palmarsson. “All in all, the second half was a complete catastrophe. We scored 10 goals – that’s far too few to win a semi-final. You can’t win against Vardar with this performance.”

TEXT: Björn Pazen / cg