The German Contingent

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The German Contingent


September 14, 2017




Rhein-Neckar Löwen – It’s all about priorities

When you are the two-time defending German champion people expect you to compete for the Champions League title, that’s for sure. But with Rhein-Neckar Löwen it’s different. For some reason the domestic title has more meaning for the team from Mannheim. Last season some of the home games in the group stage were played in Frankfurt and less than 2,000 people attended on average – quite disappointing.

Apart from the fact that some of these matches were meaningless, it’s about the general priorities of the club. Given their budget they know it’s almost impossible to be a serious contender in all competitions, especially on the European stage. Kiel and Flensburg, the main rivals for the past years, should take note of this approach – maybe. Rest your starters when the result doesn’t matter and focus on winning the league title and possibly the German cup.

Well, the domestic cup may have been a different story in 2017, but over all, I think, they were handling the situation quite well. Nobody would have recalled winning the group stage, something that was well within the club’s reach last season. But winning a back-to-back league title will be remembered forever. And a rather thin roster, both in ways of depth of roster as well as physical state of the players, wouldn’t allow for more.

Still the team is hungry for more after bowing out early in the previous two Champions League seasons. But this time it will be even more difficult to reach the FINAL4, after losing Kim Ekdahl du Rietz due to an early retirement. His premature departure from handball is a huge blow. The Swede probably played his best handball of a rather short career in 2016/17, maybe because he knew that he would be done soon. Neither Momir Rnic nor Filip Taleski are proper replacements and Mads Mensah Larsen still has to prove his critics wrong.

Ekdahl du Rietz was able to play well on both ends of the court and he knew exactly what kind of plays Andy Schmid and Alex Petersson had in mind. Sure, Schmid makes everyone around him better, and although he comes across as a magician at times, he can only do so much. As long as Mensah Larsen doesn’t make a huge step forward it will be tough for Löwen making it past the quarterfinal. And somehow, I don’t see it happening.

At least they profit from a weaker group, as only Vardar and Barcelona are on the same level, or a bit higher. But teams like Veszprem or Kielce will be hard to beat in a quarterfinal and that’s what I expect. Kiel or Flensburg will be waiting in the round before already and we know history. But who thought the team of coach Jacobsen would repeat as league champions? Keep in mind the team from Mannheim is quite hungry to advance further this time around.

As Schmid can’t do everything, a lot will depend on Löwen’s defense. Nicolai Jacobsen was able to implement a very aggressive 3-3 alternative, next to the usual 6-0 formation. Gedeon Guardiola and Hendrik Pekeler complement each other almost perfectly. But if one of the two, or Schmid, gets injured, then the German champion has a problem. I did talk about a thin roster earlier, didn’t I?

The Swedish goalkeeper tandem – Mikael Appelgren and Andreas Palicka – needs to be spot on as well and if you take into consideration that the 2017/18 Bundesliga seems to be far more competitive when compared to recent years, a lot will hinge on what the “Lions” can achieve once the knock-out games of the Champions League are on.

If by the time there is no more realistic chance to defend their league title, they may have a shot at Cologne. But if the domestic title is still within reach, the FINAL4 won’t.

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SG Flensburg – No easy games

When SG Flensburg-Handewitt stunned the world of  handball in 2014 conquering Europe, it was seen is as a blip by many. A blip that moved the club in the right direction, actually.  In the following years, the club established itself among the best teams in the world under the guidance of Ljubomir Vranjes.  But in early 2017, the Swedish coaching mastermind decided it was about time for a change and left his “second home”  to join Veszprem.

Maik Machulla, his assistant coach, took over and now he has the difficult task to not only replace a living legend, but also two key players, possibly three because of the injury of back-up keeper Kevin Möller.  This situation aside, Johan Jakobsson moved back home to Sweden and Anders Eggert joined Skjern in his native Denmark.  While Eggert’s form had slipped in recent years his locker-room presence will be missed, no matter what.  Jakobsson had a tough first half year in Germany, but excelled thereafter.

Knowing that Kentin Mahé, who prefers to play in the back-court, will also leave the club next summer, Hampus Wanne desperately needs all the playing time he can get on the left wing.  Mahé, who is known to be quite an emotional guy, could be an unhappy camper rather soon, because what goes for Wanne also holds for newly-acquired Simon Jeppsson, who just turned 22 this summer.

Thomas Mogensen is another key figure, that will follow Eggert and join Skjern next year, but as he is the playmaker of the team, he has far more responsibility than his Danish compatriot.  He is viewed as the heart and soul of the team – who will or can follow in his footsteps?  Jim Gottfridsson was seen as the one allowing Rasmus Lauge to switch to the middle more often, but he is out with an injury for the next months.

Then there is Mattias Andersson, ready to retire after this season, a decision that could have opened the door for Kevin Möller.  But he is rumored to be on his way to Barcelona, as Gottfridsson the Dane will most likely miss the first half of the campaign. Rasmus Lind, brought in until the end of the year, is not anywhere close to being the kind of second goalkeeper the team needs in order to compete in the Champions League. Welcome, Mister Machulla, nobody said it would be easy.

Having said this, the team still features a great defense led by Tobias Karlsson, along with Jacob Heinl and Henrik Toft Hansen. Expect them doing a good job most of the times for their team to win games, at least at home. But two road losses in the first four matches of the new Bundesliga season, already signal that it will be a different story without the support of their fans. And I shouldn’t forget Holger Glandorf, who – no matter his age – is one of the most complete right-backs in the game.

Summing it all up it looks like there are still some reliable elements in the game of Flensburg, but some more questions marks as well. Will Jeppsson be the answer as left-back?  What can bring Mogensen to the table in his final year in Germany?  And can Andersson be on the top of his game for a whole season like he used to be in the past?  Finally, what about young Norwegian right-back Magnus Rød – the guy replacing Jakobsson?

You see, a lot of questions need to be answered in a positive way for Flensburg to compete in the toughest of all competitions. And I didn’t even mention the fact that a former assistant coach often has to work even harder to muster the respect of his players, especially when the going gets tough.  Although, I don’t think the squad will let Machulla down.  Still, the knock-out stage is as far as Flensburg will go this year, anything beyond that will be a major surprise – at least to me.

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THW Kiel – A different approach

A new Champions League campaign is just around the corner and it’s perfect timing to look ahead at what the upcoming season will bring to handball fans.

If we forget about Barcelona for a second, THW Kiel is – without a doubt – the biggest handball club in the world. Paris is too “young” and lacks the prestige of the Germans and all the other clubs are missing a number of trophies to rival the “Zebras”.

But formerly mighty THW has lost its dominance and after four matches in the 2017/18 Bundesliga edition, the club has already lost twice, once at home against the TSV Hannover-Burgdorf, a team they had never lost against before and they narrowly escaped another defeat at Sparkassen arena against SC Magdeburg the week prior. Needless to say, long time coach Alfred Gislason is under heavy pressure. Currently, the team sits in ninth position, which doesn’t bode well considering the upcoming challenges.

It certainly doesn’t help – before Kiel hosts PSG on Sunday – Wolff & Co. will have to play Leipzig first, a squad that just beat Flensburg fair and square. It doesn’t help either that Domagoj Duvnjak will likely miss another two months before he will be back. And once he returns to the pitch, it doesn’t mean that he will perform on the same high level as he did in the past. It will take some time before the Croat will be his former self, although Miha Zarabec, his replacement, has done a decent job, so far.

The Slovenian playmaker is not the problem, not at at all. But Kiel’s defense is. The men around Patrick Wienzek conceded 30+ goals in both home matches this season, something that rarely happened in the past. It will be tough to win games if your defense is not up to the task. Then there is the ongoing rumor regarding Andreas Wolff, who is underpaid, as he signed with Kiel prior to his heroics at the EHF EURO 2016 in Poland.

Polish side Kielce and Hungarian club Veszprem are rumored to be interested in his services. Wolff and Niklas Landin – the other world-class keeper of the club – claim that the current situation is neither impacting their performance nor their relationship. I think it does, at least in the back of their mind. Let’s not forget, handball is a very big thing in Kiel and not having won the league title two years in a row is something many consider a sure failure. Pressure is mounting in the North.

But what’s the real difference between Kiel, the dominating handball powerhouse that we used to see and the team that takes to the floor at Sparkassen arena these days?

In the past, the club used its financial strength to attract star players every summer, but now teams like Paris, Skopje or Kielce – compete for the world’s best players. Germany’s premier handball organization will have to take a different approach. That’s why they signed the likes of Nikola Bilyk or Lukas Nilsson at a young age, steps they would not have taken ten years ago.

However, it takes time until those players will be able to hang with the best on any given day. At times they are capable of making the difference already, but hey, they are 20 years old. But I’m not sure if Gislason is able to develop players as much as he is used to guide a team full of stars. That’s what he did in Magdeburg many years ago and continued doing in his time in Kiel. But if you want to win the Champions League, you have to play with and beat the “big boys”.

So, how much self-confidence is left to become a serious contender in the 2017/18 Champions League season? If you ask me: Not much. After two seasons that ended below par, the start to this campaign must be described as sluggish, at best. The key to ongoing success will be Duvnjak, because Kiel will surely make it to the knock-out stage at the beginning of March, next year. Enough time for him get back in shape. A though draw, could make it difficult reaching Cologne in the spring of 2018. I expect Kiel to play a group stage below their usual standard.

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