Which team will raise the EHF EURO 2018 trophy? Which players will surprise us? What selfie poses will the Spain team choose after each match? How long will it take Slovenia right wing Blaz Janc to miss a shot? Will Germany coach Christian Prokop’s much talked about decisions prove right or wrong?
To find out, we will have to wait and see what happens over the 16-day competition – but as we count down the hours until the first matches throw off on Friday, speculating is an excellent source of entertainment.
We put the task to our EHF EURO 2018 journalists Bjorn Pazen and Adrian Costeiu, asking them six of the biggest questions on everyone’s lips – and they certainly have some clear and strong opinions.
Who will be the MVP of the EHF EURO 2018?
Björn Pazen: Sorry, Nikola, sorry Mikkel, sorry Uwe! But all of you PSG stars will not be awarded MVP – it will be your teammate Sander Sagosen. It will be hard decision for the EHF expert’s panel, as the Norwegian super talent and Domagoj Duvnjak have the same dominant role in steering their teams toward the final (keeping in mind that the MVP and All-star Team are announced the day before the final).
Sagosen’s way of playing with this huge self-esteem (some even call it arrogance) will headline this tournament even more than it did in the previous years. Even Duvnjak’s return after his long-term injury is not comparable with the way Sagosen has been the Norwegian hub.
Adrian Costeiu: I agree with Björn that the decision will be probably the toughest one yet, with the best players on Earth fighting it out for a medal in Croatia. But if Norway are not through to the semi-finals, it will be hard for Sander Sagosen to win the MVP title, regardless of his huge talent and the importance in the Norwegian team.
Look for the obvious candidates: Nikola Karabatic could win a record-breaking third MVP title, while Mikkel Hansen is able to add to his collection of individual awards. But if Croatia go all the way to the final, it will be hard to overlook Domagoj Duvnjak. He has come back hungrier, and playing this tournament in front of his own fans should really get the back pumped up.
Who will be the top scorer?
Björn Pazen: This is a question like: Will there be more snow in winter than in summer? If FYR Macedonia survive the preliminary round (which, in my opinion, they will), the one and only top scorer can be Kiril Lazarov. Even though he has not played that dominant in Nantes in the first part of the season, he will be on top again, followed by those penalty experts from the wing positions, such as Uwe Gensheimer (GER), Zlatko Horvat (CRO) and Jerry Tollbring (SWE).
Adrian Costeiu: Lazarov is the go-to guy in the Macedonian team and is likely to score at least 40 goals in the competition. But watch out for Domagoj Duvnjak or Mikkel Hansen – powerful backs, who should play at least one game more than Lazarov. Experienced wing Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson has been in the top 10 goal scorers for the last three EHF EURO tournaments in which he represented Iceland.
Which teams will go home after the preliminary round?
Björn Pazen: Austria, Czech Republic, Serbia and Montenegro. The Austrians and Czechs will not gain a point in the preliminary round. Serbia will be close, but will lose the crucial match against Iceland in the dying minutes. The same will occur for Montenegro in an extreme low-goal encounter against the Macedonians, which will end in a tie.
Adrian Costeiu: I tend to agree with Björn, as Austria, Montenegro and the Czech Republic have little chance to progress through to the next round. However, a properly motivated Serbia team should battle it out with Iceland for third place. If the ‘Orlovi’ manage a good performance against Croatia in the opening game, then they could surprise Iceland in that encounter.
Which three teams will take the medals?
Adrian Costeiu: France and Croatia cannot meet in the semi-finals, and they look to have the easiest path to a medal before the start of the tournament. But a less-experienced France team and a Croatia side that will face enormous pressure could always end up empty-handed.
With an exciting mix of youth and experience, Spain should never be overlooked, as they are searching for their first EHF EURO gold medal in history, while Denmark look poised to add to their tally if they start well against Spain. Norway could also be the dark horse, but they rely heavily on Sander Sagosen’s form, while Slovenia are sure to miss Jure Dolenec – a huge blow to their medal hopes.
Björn Pazen: In certain points, I agree with you, Adrian. In my opinion, we will see one of the highest level 5/6 placement matches in EHF EURO history, when world champions France lock horns with EURO 2016 silver medallists Spain. Later on, Croatia (against Germany) and Denmark (against Norway) will win their semis to duel in the final on January 28. Though Denmark know how to beat the hosts in the final (proven in 2012 in Serbia), the Croatians will go all the way. The fight for bronze will be decided in a penalty shoot-out between Germany and Norway.
How far will the defending champions go?
Adrian Costeiu: Germany took the European elite by storm two years ago when they were not seen as the biggest favourites in the competition. They are not the favourites now, and this should help them in their quest to become the first team to retain the EHF EURO title since Sweden in 2002. They have kept the winning core intact and such experience is always helpful at the highest level. Germany should win Group C comfortably, but face do-or-die matches against Spain and Denmark in the main round – games that will shape up their title-defence campaign.
Björn Pazen: Germany always lose one match in the preliminary round – I guess against Slovenia – but from that moment on, they will win all games like they did in 2004 and 2016, when they took the gold medals. Despite the big squad discussion, the Germans count on their traditional goalkeeping and defence strengths to leave Spain behind again.
Adrian Costeiu: The pressure is huge on Croatia to succeed on their home court, 18 years after they failed to win a medal at the EHF EURO 2000 in Zagreb. The team looks ready, has been taking advantage of their position as hosts, and will have the passionate fans on their side.
But this also brings the responsibility and pressure on them, as highlighted by Luka Stepancic in an interview for ehf-euro.com. The draw has been kind on Croatia – a team that should proceed at least to the semi-finals. It’s anyone’s guess as to how far they go from there. However, anything but a medal at the EHF EURO 2018 would be considered a failure.
Björn Pazen: Two years ago, the Croatians were the stumbling stone for the 2016 hosts Poland, eliminating them sensationally from the semis and ending all the hopes of a whole country. Exactly this match will make them be aware of what can happen to them.
Boosted by Duvnjak and the ‘Kauboji’ spirit of 2009 [silver medal at the home World Championship], they will end their EHF EURO curse to send Lino Cervar into pension as the third ever handball coach, after Ulrik Wilbek (Denmark) and Vladimir Maximov (Russia), to win all major tournaments (World and European championship, Olympic Games).