From Kielce we move on to Macedonia – Skopje to be exact – in our preview of next season’s Champions League. After Yugoslavia’s split up, the nation of Macedonia became one of the most interesting stories in the world of handball, while superstar Kiril Lazarov put the small country on the map with his outstanding performances over the years. So far Macedonia has been missing a big time club, but Vardar is on its way.
Local rival Metalurg has pushed Vardar in recent years to become better and better. It has worked well for Vardar, whereas Metalurg has been suffering from financial problems, stagnating on the same level. Several top-notch players have moved to the Macedonian capital in recent time and head coach Raul Gonzalez Gutierrez has assembled a small “Spanish armada” around him.
In the past three seasons Vardar missed out and did not qualify for the Final 4. Especially the 2013/14 season comes to mind, when they lost to SG Flensburg-Handewitt – the team from the north of Germany eventually won the title later in the season – based on “away” goals. A year later Polish side Kielce was slightly better, while some months ago it was Hungarian powerhouse Veszprem that stopped Vardar’s run.
It seems the biggest issue for the Macedonians is the “away leg” in the quarterfinals. They lost three times in as many attempts, while they are almost unbeatable at the legendary Jane Sandanski Arena, where more than 7,500 fans usually go crazy in backing the home squad. But once outside their comfort zone, they don’t get that kind of support – actually not even close to it.
One way to get more consistent is by gaining experience. So, the club decided to invest in “experience” and acquired Spanish back-court player Joan Canellas Reixach from THW Kiel. Croatian veteran right-wing, Ivan Cupic, is another big-time player who adds to the quality of the roster. Now, it appears that Vardar has a complete team – almost.
Arpad Sterbik in goal might still be one of the best keeper’s in the world when in form. He’s so tall that he’s already in the face of the shooter when he’s just standing between the goalposts. For sure, he is one of the top three goalkeepers of his generation only trailing behind French legend Thierry Omeyer, but not by much. And obviously he’s a true winner.
The aforementioned Cupic assures Vardar of two high-level wingers – the Croatian national on the right side, and Russian star player, Timur Dibirov, on the left side. Pure skill, pure class – Canellas adds to a formidable back-court, together with Alex Dushebajev and Jorge Maqueda. The two right-backs probably fill this position best when considering quality and depth.
Another player that I rate very high and who has flown under the radar lately because of an injury he suffered last year, is Russian shooter Alexander Dereven. He showcased his talent when he was playing for Chevkovski Medvedi. It will be very interesting to see if he develops into the player many expect him to be. If so, it would definitely upgrade Vardar’s chances.
Vardar’s biggest weaknesses? A thin bench and no top-class line-player. And that’s probably the biggest issue. In today’s game you need somebody who’s able to defend and able to score from the line. Vardar does have neither, if you ask me. But they got the easier one of the two groups, and considering the team’s strength at home, they might even finish first. While it seems unlikely, it’s not impossible.
I forecast that Vardar will be very close again to making it to the Final 4. But this time, because Group A fields so many fantastic clubs, they will have to finish second or even first in their own group to avoid a strong opponent once elimination time starts. While the squad’s quality improved by adding Canellas and Cupic, there are too many good teams that can and will beat Vardar. Therefore – quarterfinals – at best.