Ruling World champions France and host Croatia took major steps towards the semi-finals of the 2018 European championship.
A brilliant defense performance served as basis for France’s win against Sweden (23:17), while Croatia came back from a couple of poor performances to defeat Norway (32:28).
By Peter Bruun
Sweden vs France 17:23 (8:10)
Before the Match
This was the meeting between the only two teams still with maximum points in the tournament.
Sweden did suffer one defeat en route to the main round, but it came against Iceland, who were eliminated after the group phase.
France, on the other hand, arrived in Zagreb with three wins from during the group phase – although there one-goal opening success against Norway was very fortunate.
Before the beginning of the main round, France were hit by yet another injury, when Timothey N´Guessan got sidelined with a knee injury. He was replaced by Romain Lagarde (Nantes), but it was expected that veteran Nikola Karabatic would take over on the left back position. On the positive side – Luka Karabatic was back from injury.
Sweden did not defeat France at a major tournament since the 2014 European championship in Denmark, back then success came in a match, when France had already secured their ticket to the main round.
This time, Sweden did not win either, even though they tracked “Les Experts” closely until 15:14 with 12 minutes left on the clock. Thereafter, France ran away with the victory.
Just as expected, France started with Nikola Karabatic as left back, leaving the playmaker position to Kentin Mahé.
This lineup did not work particularly well, as France struggled quite a bit to score goals, but their aggressive defense in front of a stellar Vincent Gerard made up for any deficiencies on the other end of the pitch.
Gerard in goal was outstanding start, saving eight of the first nine Swedish shots in the game. Consequently, France were in the lead throughout the first half.
4:1, 7:3, 8:4 and 9:5 – France appeared to be in complete control. Luka Karabatic was not part of a very solid French defense for long, though.
24 minutes into the game, he was sent off with a red card, and the Swedes made some use of the confusion after the incident, reducing the deficit to just one goal at 9:8, before France had the last word in a low-scoring first half.
The second half began were the first half left off – the game was dominated by defense.
Finally, Sweden caught up after missing several chances to break even. But France never allowed Sweden to get into their speed game, a hallmark of “Tre Kronor” in their previous matches.
Yet, 11 minutes into the second half, Lukas Nilsson drew even at 12:12. France got up again by two, but Sweden continued to hang in until the 50th minute or so.
At this point, France scored five unanswered goals, changing a 15:14 into 20:14 advantage – game over.
Player of the Match
Saving eight of the first nine Swedish shots in the match, the 31-year-old goalkeeper from Montpellier played a decisive role in France getting off to a better start in this important game.
A saving percentage of 53 throughout the entire match speak for itself; Gerard was one of the main reasons why Sweden were kept to 17 goals only.
France took a giant step towards the semi-final.
With six points, “Les Bleus” will have to stumble big time to not make it to the “final four”. France now have two days to prepare for their next match, against Serbia who already wasted their chance to proceed any further. Sweden will be up against Belarus.
After the defeat to France, a Swedish win will be absolutely necessary for them to stay in the race for a semi-final ticket.
Croatia vs Norway 32:28 (17:15)
Before the Match
Both teams entered the Zagreb Arena on four points after winning their first main round match.
While Norway had no trouble beating Serbia 32:27 because of a fine second half, Croatia needed some “help” from two weak Russian referees, to land a narrow and undeserved 25:23 win against Belarus.
The host nation could have lived without all the turbulence that followed that match as well, when their coach Lino Cervar was fined € 3000,- by the EHF for grabbing a player from Belarus, in the last minute of the game.
Croatia were likely to need all the support they could get from their home crowd against a fast and confident Norwegian team.
“Croatian will have a hard time stopping us,” as Norway´s star, Sander Sagosen, put it.
Instead of Croatia having a hard time stopping the Norway it was the other way around, in fact, the Scandinavians never solved the task of blocking the host.
Croatia were leading from beginning to end, and their victory was never in any real danger.
15,000 in attendance saw a vastly improved Croatian team, compared to the shaky squad, they saw in the previous matches against Sweden and Belarus.
Croatian goalkeeper, Ivan Stevanonvic threw in the best goalkeeping performance at this European championship, thus far.
And in offense, the Croatia’s game was in rhythm once again as well.
From the beginning, the home team seemed to steamroll a Norwegian team that could not find the level they showed in their previous four matches.
Norway’s defense was performing sub par, and in goal neither Torbjørn Bergerud nor Espen Chrisensen could get their hands on the ball.
As a result, Croatia scored in almost all their attacks, taking away one of Norway’s most important weapons – the fast-break.
Croatia continued to be in control, even though Norway cut the deficit to one goal a couple of times in the opening phase of the second half.
Still, Norway’s goalkeepers were not strong enough, allowing their team to get back into the game. Soon Croatia went up by four goals and slowly but slowly the match began to move away from Myrhol & Co.
When left wing, Manuel Strlek, stole the ball and increased the lead to five (29:24), at a time, when Croatia were two players short, it meant game over.
Norway never recovered and Croatia celebrated a deserved win in a jam-packed arena.
Unlike on the previous Thursday, Zagreb Arena was sold out this time, and the 15,000 created an atmosphere that was electric.
No team can ask for better support, and it’s almost impossible to not get a serious lift from such exciting fans.
Croatia on six points after beating Norway are sure to finish ahead of the Scandinavian’s.
The match between Croatia and France on the very last game day in the main round will bring the decision for the semi-final tickets in Group I.