The Usual Suspects And A Few New Faces
October 16, 2014
By Peter Bruun
When the Women´s Champions League throws off this weekend, it is generally with the same teams as favorites as in previous years – but a few more or less well known outfits may also have a say.
Let it be said from the start: All views and opinions expressed in the following are my own. So you should shoot at me if you disagree – and this also means that everyone has the right to mock me if I turn out to be wrong (which probably will the case here and there, as handball is fortunately not as predictable as some people try to make it!)
Friday afternoon at 17:00 hrs. CET the Women´s EHF Champions League 2014/15 throws off with the first match of the group phase when HCM Baia Mare receives MKS Selgros Lublin in Group D.
That game will be the starting signal to six weekends in a row with group matches before we know the 12 teams for the main round on November 22, 2014.
After New-Year’s, eight off those 12 teams will then make it to the quarter-finals, from which four teams will advance to the promised land – the FINAL4 in Budapest in May.
Which teams may expect to get that far and which teams are only there for the experience?
Let us take a look at the hopefuls – group by group.
With all due respect to the four clubs involved, this is by far the weakest group, but maybe also the most unpredictable.
RK Krim Mercator is no longer what it once was. Financial problems have threatened to kill the club from time to time, and many key players have left the traditional Slovenian club. Marta Bon, who is back as coach, has done wonders before, but can she do it again?
Dinamo-Sinara, formerly known as Dinamo Volgograd have ambitions for their comeback to the Champions League, but the question is what do they have supporting those ambitions. Earlier this autumn a ten-goal defeat at home to Rostov Don in the Russian league is no testament of enormous quality. Still, Dinamo has the advantage of being in an easy group – a group they may be able to win after all. They will not make it as far as to the FINAL4, though.
Hypo Niederösterreich has also seen better days. The Austrian record champion has lost all their Brazilian World Champions and they are building a new team, mainly based on young Austrian talents. Probably a healthy investment in the future but it may not be enough to take them to the main round for the first time since the 2012/13 season.
Having lost top scorer Susann Müller to Györ is an obvious handicap for HC Leipzig, but the German runner-up of the past couple of years can still rely on key players like Katja Schülke, Saskia Lang and Karolina Kudlacz. In Group A they may just be strong enough to make it to the main round for the first time in three years – but that will be the end for them.
To the main round: Dinamo-Sinara, Leipzig and Krim.
This group is stronger and easier to predict compared to Group A.
With eight players in and eight out, one should think that it was status quo for head coach Indira Kastratovic at Vardar Skopje.
However, with the two stars, line player Anja Althaus and back court player Andrea Penezic among the newcomers, the ambitious Macedonians seem to have taken a further step up that ladder which took them to the FINAL4 last season. Nothing less than a repeat of that achievement will be satisfactory this year.
The same must be said about Buducnost who have a smaller squad than last year at first sight, but the signing of right back Katarina Bulatovic from Györ gives the charismatic coach Dragan Adzic a so much stronger team to work with.
The loss of line player Anja Althaus and back court player Alexandrina Barbosa will inevitably be felt at Thüringer HC but the clever coach Herbert Müller may still be able to take the German champions to the next level for a second year in a row.
For third place, a spot which will give Thueringer HC access to the main round, the team will undoubtedly be in a direct battle with HC Podravka Vegeta. The runner-up of the Croatian championship of last season (they had to go through a qualification tournament to reach the Champions League) may face a difficult group phase as a matter of fact.
To the main round: Vardar, Buducnost and THC
One of the big questions ahead of the Champions League this season may be answered already in this group: What can Györi Audi ETO KC do without goalkeeper Katrine Lund who is pregnant and right back Katarina Bulatovic who has joined Buducnost? A well-known and experienced shot-stopper, Jelena Grubisic is replacing Lunde while Bulatovic’s position has been taken over by former Leipzig top scorer Susann Müller.
The question becomes if those two can fill in the gap that Lunde and Bulatovic have left.
Following the signing of Russian back court player Anna Sen and Spanish playmaker Macarena Aguilar, Györ’s coach Ambros Martin may not have to worry after all.
After one year of absence from the Champions League – spent by winning the Cup Winners Cup – Viborg HK is back but with a reduced squad. Last winter, the Champions League winners of 2006, 2009 and 2010 were close to bankruptcy and the dark financial clouds over the traditional Danish club have not been completely blown away yet. As a result the budget for new additions to the team is not as big as it used to be. If they can stay free of injuries, the team directed by controversial coach Christian Dalmose is still strong enough to make it to the main round and maybe even to the quarter-final. But that will be it.
The last two teams of the group will be left to fight for the remaining ticket to the main round.
Lokomotiva Zagreb is a debutant in the Champions League – yet they have qualified as Croatian champion which should guarantee a certain performance level. They will probably be in a close battle with Sweden’s record champion IK Sävehof. The club is in the process of building up a new team after the departure of key players like Jamina Roberts, Linn Blohm, Frida Tegstedt and Hanna Fogelström.
To the main round: Györ, Viborg and Sävehof
Valentina Neli Ardean Elisei, Camilla Herrem, Barbara Arenhart, Alexandra do Nascimento. Ekatarina Davydenko – those are just some of the more prominent names that have joined HCM Baia Mare before this season. But they will suddenly place the Romanian club among the top favorites; provided that coach Costica Buceschi can make all those stars work together! A bunch of star players do not automatically make a great team. The men’s team of Paris Saint German came to realize this simple fact last season, but if Buceschi can make his squad click already during the group phase they will win their group.
In case it does not happen Larvik will take first place. A heavy responsibility is resting on the shoulders of Danish International Sandra Toft and her Norwegian colleague in goal, Alma Hasanic. The two follow in the footsteps of legendary goalkeepers Lene Rantala and Cecilie Leganger who both ended their respective careers ahead of this season.
If Toft and Hasanic are up to the challenge, head coach Ole Gustav Gjekstad has a team strong enough to possibly make it all the way to the FINAL4 tournament – a goal which the ambitious Norwegians missed last season.
The last place in Group D will be decided between Metz Handball and MKS Selgros Lublin. The Polish champion may have a small advantage as Metz has yet to integrate a lot of new players.
To the main round: Baia Mare, Larvik and Lublin.
Who can go all the way?
So which four teams out of these 16 hopefuls can make it all the way to the promised land – the second edition of the FINAL4 in Budapest?
Well, lots of things can happen between now and May 2015 and a great deal will also depend on the draw for the main round and certainly for the quarter-finals.
At present, however, five teams seem to be in some kind of a class of their own: Györ, Vardar, Baia Mare, Larvik and Buducnost. But only four can fit through the keyhole that unlocks the gate to the FINAL4. So which team among those five great contenders will end up standing empty-handed?
All right, let this be the prediction: Györ, Vardar, Baia Mare and Larvik will be the four teams who meet in Budapest in May!