We finish our preview of the Women´s Champions League 2016/17 with Danish debutants Team Esbjerg, a squad that won’t be plagued by long journeys to meet their competitors. In Group D they have a good chance of making their mark.
By Peter Bruun
The joy was huge in Esbjerg in May, when the handball ladies from Denmark´s fifth largest city managed to land the Danish championship for the first time in history.
In the past, it used to be the male football club and the ice hockey team that brought championship trophies to the city on the west coast of Jutland. But after the most recent title in ice hockey, last year, it was the handball girls´ turn to shine this year.
The title also meant that Team Esbjerg qualified directly for the Champions League group phase for the first time ever.
Last year, they were flirting with the Champions League, but they could not move past their qualification group in Romania. And they did not have much success in the Cup Winners´ Cup either, where they made an early exit through a nine-goal defeat to Turkish GSK Ardesen on the road.
Gonzales replaces Riegelhuth
Now, Esbjerg are finally ready for the finest club tournament of all. And their team looks interesting and ready to compete in an almost exclusively Scandinavian group including Larvik, Savehof and Krim Ljubljana as their opponents.
The best-known Esbjerg players are undoubtedly Dutch internationals Estavana Polman and Laura van der Heijden, covering the two back positions. Fortunately, the Danish champion does not entirely rely on these two players.
The club puts much confidence in Spanish international, Lara Gonzales, who has replaced Betina Riegelhuth – she went home to Norway playing for Storhamar. While Gonzales is mainly seen as defense reinforcement, Esbjerg are particularly well equipped on the line.
Norwegian international Vilde Ingstad has been brought in to supplement Ulrika Toft Hansen and Rikke Zachariassen, while the goalkeeper position is in good hands with Emily Stang Sando and Swedish international Filippa Idéhn.
However, head coach Lars Frederiksen has his worries when looking at some of the other positions.
Playmaker Lærke Møller who joined from TTH Holstebro before this season is injured – again – and is not expected to report back to the squad before Christmas, and the experienced left-wing Susanne Kastrup Forslund is pregnant, which leaves youngster, Maria Mose Vestergaard, as the only option for this position.
Still, Esbjerg should be strong enough to be among the three teams that proceed to the main round. Krim appears to be significantly weaker than the Danish newcomers.
In their first Champions League season, Team Esbjerg will qualify for the main round.
At a minimum they will leave Krim behind, but they will probably not be able to do much about the group favorite – Larvik.
In all likelihood it will be a direct battle between Esbjerg and Savehof for second place, and here, the Swedish Champions League experience may very well make the difference.
Anyway, the main round will be the end of Esbjerg´s first Champions League adventure. A quarter-final is not in the cards for the Danish debutants.
Three to Watch
Estavana Polman (NED) – Left-Back
Estavana Polman and her boyfriend, football star Raphael van der Vaart, who plays for FC Midtjylland, is one of the most entertaining couples in Danish media at the moment, but for now let’s just stick to Miss Polman´s handball skills.
We mentioned that she is listed as left-back – her original position – but in Team Esbjerg, she is mainly used as playmaker, and this will be her position at least until Lærke Møller returns from injury. She knows how to adjust and her shots from the center will be just as dangerous.
Laura van der Heijden (NED) – Right-Back
Just like her national teammate, Polman, van der Heijden is an absolute key player for Team Esbjerg.
The 26-year-old left-handed backcourt player, who is in her fourth season with the Danes, is crucial to Team Esbjerg´s offense. She will need to be at her best, if the Danish champions are to go far in the 2016/17 Champions League.
Lara Gonzales (ESP) – Left-Back
It took Esbjerg long to find a suitable replacement for Betina Riegelhuth, when the Norwegian international surprisingly decided to go home.
However, Lara Gonzales was certainly a player worth waiting for. The 24-year-old and 184 cm tall Spanish international, joined from Hungarian Siófok. She is expected to strengthen Esbjerg’s defense, but there is no doubt that coach Frederiksen will also find time to use her in attack as well.