The first match for EHF EURO 2018 Group B in Porec was considered an early final for both teams, and Belarus were the winners. Thanks to a strong performance from goalkeeper Viachaslau Saldatsenka and seven goals from top scorer Uladzislau Kulesh, coach Iouri Chevtsov’s team beat Austria 27:26 (14:12) in a true thriller. With the matches against France and Norway ahead, this first result could be the key for the main round ticket.
"I am satisfied with the game. In the beginning, my players were nervous and maybe we could have played better. But it was a hard game, as Austria fought very strong until the end," said Belarus coach Chevtsov.
Despite eight goals from extraordinary Nikola Bilyk, who was awarded best player of the match, the Austrians were never in the lead through the whole 60 minutes. Counting on the goals from unstoppable Kulesh, Belarus had the better start. Even the strong Austria back court duo Bilyk and Janko Bozovic (together seven of their side’s 12 goals before the break) could not turn the tide, as their defence was too weak.
The 600 Austrian fans in the stands – compared to approximately 25 from Belarus – tried everything to push their team, but when Belarusian goalkeeper Viachaslau Saldatsenka shut up his shop for a short period, his team extended the gap to a three-goal margin, 12:9, for the first time.
Neither a time-out from coach Patrekur Johannesson, nor the change in goalkeeper from Thomas Bauer to Kristian Pilipovic, did much to turn the tables. The physically strong Belarusian team put enormous pressure on their opponents, causing Bilyk to miss the last chance off a direct free throw before the half-time buzzer.
Belarus extended the gap to 19:15, leading to an early time-out from Austria after only seven minutes of play in the second period. Alongside Kulesh, experienced Barys Pukhouski and wing Andrei Yurynok took the responsibility.
The match became truly combative during that period, in which Austria lost left back Alexander Herrmann due to an adductor injury. In the middle of the second half, Sebastian Frimmel and Wilhelm Jelinek each had their second two-minute suspensions, which limited the alternatives in defence. Frimmel was even shown the red card right before the end.
But the joint EHF EURO 2020 hosts struck back, turning an 18:22 deficit into a tight score of 22:23 by minute 48 – backed by the saves of Bauer, who had returned between the posts, and the vocal fans.
The match was on the edge – Austria missed many chances to level the result, while Belarus were cold as ice in the crucial moments. When Pukhouski netted for 27:24 three minutes before the end, the deal was sealed, and Belarus took a huge step towards the main round.
"For sure, we are disappointed. But honestly, Belarus deserved to win – they were one goal better than us," said Bauer. "They were solid in defence and attack. We had focused on this special game for a long time, so now we will have a hard night. We need to be better against France and Norway to get our first points – and I am sure we will get points."