Crunch time in Budapest
February 27, 2016
Champions League (W) – Group 1
FTC Rail Cargo vs HCM Baia Mare 21:18 (14:7)
Before the Match
Either team had to win the game in order to avoid the dreaded fourth place in Group 1, a position that (in all likelihood) would match the losing club against the defending champion, Buducnost Podgorica in the quarter-final, in early April.
Baia Mara arrived in the Hungarian capital without right-back Melinda Geiger – once again her position was assumed by Patricia Vizitiu – while FTC coach Gabor Elek did not have to make any changes to his regular starting lineup.
FTC Rail Cargo led quickly 4:1 before Allison Pineau brought her team back into striking distance. Thereafter, the Hungarian champion went on a 9:3 run, creating an advantage that Baia Mare would not overcome anymore. In the end, FTC recorded their second main round victory in front of 3,000 enthusiastic supporters at the Syma Sport and Event Center in Budapest, ending Baia Mare’s winning streak.
Spanish playmaker Nerea Pena and left-back Szandra Zacsik jumped to an early 3-goal lead, forcing Baia Mare’s coach, Aurelian Rosca to take a first team timeout by the 5th minute and rearranging his defensive line-up. Gabriella Szucs replaced Gabriela Perianu in central defense. The tactical move paid some immediate dividends in the minutes that followed.
On the other side of the pitch, Allison Pineau did her best to reduce the deficit. By the 11th minute Pineau’s third goal of the match cut FTC’s lead to one. But instead of faltering, Pena & Co. went on a 9:3 run and by half time, the encounter between the two top teams looked like a done deal for Elek’s crew. FTC had amassed a commanding seven-goal lead.
Meanwhile, Ionica Munteanu had replaced Paula Ungureanu in goal, as Baia Mare’s number one keeper found it difficult to stop most of FTC’s shots during the first 30 minutes of play. Munteanu had a better start and three unanswered Baia Mare goals caused Gabor Elek to take the early timeout. The next 10 minutes or so were a slow grind and the defense formations of both clubs dominated the match. Field goals were hard to come by and Luca Szekerczes (FTC) and do Nascimento (Baia Mare) began trading goals from the 7-meter mark. FTC’s free flowing rhythm of the first half was gone. Five minutes before the final whistle Baia Mare was down by three and for a moment it looked like a point was within reach for the Romanian crew. But a brilliant Melinda Szikora in FTC’s goal destroyed any of Baia Mare’s simmering hope for a better result. Two minutes before the end, Baia Mare’s best player – Alexandra do Nascimento – scored her ninth and final goal of the match. At 21:18, the impressive main round winning streak of Pineau & Co. came to an end.
Player of the Match
Melinda Szikora, FTC’s goalkeeper enjoyed an outstanding day between the goalposts, especially during the first half when her savings rate stood at 42%. While the stats came down somewhat during the second period, a few spectacular saves toward the end of the game assured FTC’s deserved victory.
Battle of the Match
Two of handball’s greatest players – Nerea Pena and Allison Pineau – took to the court this Saturday afternoon in Budapest. After 60 minutes, the Spanish playmaker had decided the much-anticipated duel in her favor. The versatile back-court player of FTC Rail Cargo was almost impossible to stop even when directly covered. While Pena enjoyed some meaningful support from Szandra Zacsik and Zita Szucsanszki, Pineau was missing contributions from Lois Abbingh and Katarina Jezic who both went scoreless – a rare case. FTC’s two central defenders – Klara Szekeres and Rea Meszaros – had much to do with it. Following the weak performance a week ago in Larvik, the two defense specialists showed a different side in this critical match against Baia Mare.
Coach of the Match
Gabor Elek was alert and on point throughout the game whereas his counterpart, Aurelian Rosca, at times, appeared to be detached from what happened on the pitch.
An earlier replacement of keeper Ungureanu, who was struggling in goal during the entire first half, would have been a decision worthwhile trying. Lois Abbingh’s late entry to the game on the offensive end is another question that begs for an answer. Gabriela Perianu (left-back) was not able to apply the necessary pressure on FTC’s defense and neither was Patricia Vizitiu (right-back). The offensive lineup that worked against Thueringer HC a week ago certainly did not do so against a distinctly more aggressive defense formation from Budapest.
It was an important match for both clubs and Karina Christiansen and Line Hesseldal Hansen (Denmark), who struggled on a number of occasions to make the correct call. Two situations stuck in mind – one when Baia Mare’s, Lois Abbingh was on the receiving end of an apparent penalty worthy violation during the first half – the 7-meter call wasn’t made. The questionable decision was followed by a misguided whistle, shortly thereafter, when calling an offensive foul against the Dutch international, after being pushed in the air onto the defender. In both instances, Lois Abbingh kept her composure – remarkable.
For now, Gabor Elek’s squad claims second spot in Group 1 but this may change after Larvik’s match in Orleans aginst Fleury Loiret, on Sunday. The French champion has nothing tangible to play for anymore in their Champions League maiden season. Larvik, in contrast, has set their sight on just the position that FTC Rail Cargo currently occupies in Group 1. Two more points against the French won’t assure a weaker opponent in the quarter-final as anything can happen in Group 2, on “Super Sunday” of the 2015/16 edition of the EHF Champions League.
Buducnost, Gyor or Vardar could be the challenger in the quarter-final round – it does not get any easier for Gro Hammerseng-Edin & Co. en route to a second consecutive Final4 appearance. While the same holds true for Baia Mare, a Buducnost loss at home against FC Midtjylland appears highly unlikely. Two quarter-final games against coach Azic’s team look like the most realistic option for Allison Pineau et al.
One of the possible scenarios for FTC would match Nerea Pena against Gyor’s Nycke Groot – a game that the two clubs and Hungarian handball fans may much rather want to see being played in May instead of April.
/ J. Schutz