Spain and Denmark are the overwhelming favourites to place first and second in Group D, but will have to wait for the last preliminary round match for the mutual encounter. Until then, the two powerhouses are looking to secure their place in the main round with wins over the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Group C is also expected to be tight, with current title holders Germany throwing off their campaign against Montenegro, before World Championship 2017 bronze medallists Slovenia open versus FYR Macedonia.
GROUP C, Zagreb
Germany vs Montenegro
Saturday 13 January, 17:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com
Can Montenegro take their first ever win on what is their fourth EHF EURO participation, or will Germany take revenge for their darkest hour in EURO history? This question will be answered in the Group C opener in Zagreb.
Montenegro’s record at final EURO tournaments stands at 12 matches and 11 defeats. But coach Dragan Djukic’s team has been the stumbling stone for big names – like in the qualification for Croatia, when a thrilling draw in Moscow propelled the Balkan side to the EURO and left Russia to miss the final tournament for the first time in history.
In June 2014, a 27:25 home win in Podgorica caused Germany’s first ever, and so far only, elimination from a EURO tournament. But after that, Germany came back stronger and took the title two years later in Krakow, Poland.
As the only defeat at the 2016 event occurred in the opener, the Germans can extend their impressive winning streak to eight EHF EURO games if they beat Montenegro. Germany had no problems qualifying for Croatia, being – alongside 2016 finalists Spain – the only team with the maximum six victories in six matches.
The opening game in Zagreb could see a duel between two of the best shooters in the world of handball at the moment: Montenegrin Vuko Borozan, who was a key for Vardar’s VELUX EHF Champions League title win last June, and Germany team captain Uwe Gensheimer (Paris Saint-Germain), who was top scorer in Europe’s premier league last season. Ahead of the official submission of the 16-player lists for teams in Groups C and D on Friday night, there is a question mark over injured Borozan’s name – whose absence or presence will have a significant impact on Montenegro’s chances.
FYR Macedonia vs Slovenia
Saturday 13 January, 19:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com
Veselin Vujovic is still a hero and legend in Skopje, but on Saturday, the Macedonian fans will not shout their classic “Vujo, majstero”, as they did when he had coached Vardar. Today, the first ever IHF World Handball Player of the Year is the coach of Slovenia – and has become a legend there too, as he steered the team to their first-ever World Championship medal when they claimed bronze in France in January 2017.
On the way there, Slovenia beat FYR Macedonia 29:22 in the preliminary round, and two years before, they eliminated the Macedonians in the last 16 stage of the World Championship in Qatar. The only Macedonian win in five duels so far was a truly important one, when Kiril Lazarov & Co. secured their spot at the London 2012 Olympic Qualification Tournament by beating Slovenia in the 5/6 placement match at the EHF EURO in Belgrade.
Currently, the Slovenians suffer from a series of injuries: Right back Jure Dolenec and line player Matej Gaber are ruled out, Vid Kavticnik – the only survivor of the EHF EURO 2004 silver medal-winning team in the current squad – is in question. Therefore, the duel of left-handed stars, Lazarov and Dolenec (who happens to be Lazarov’s successor in the right back position at FC Barcelona) will not occur on Friday.
The Macedonians need the goals of Lazarov, who still holds the record as top scorer of an EHF EURO tournament with 61 strikes in Serbia, and who finished EHF EURO 2018 qualification on top of the tally. On the other hand, Slovenia count on a number of highly skilled young talents, led by right wing Blaz Janc.
GROUP D, Varazdin
Spain vs Czech Republic
Saturday 13 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com
The Czech Republic could not have expected a more difficult start than the one against Spain, after losing the retired Filip Jicha and the injured Tomas Babak in the last four months. ‘Los Hispanos’ have won all six mutual games against the Czech Republic – four of them during the EHF EURO tournaments. But the history is there to be defied and Spain are looking forward to a tough game against their opponents.
If Spain want to progress to the semi-finals, there is little room for error. This group is arguably the most balanced in the competition therefore, any misstep could prove fatal in the quest for a medal.
The round one game will also serve as a milestone for Raul Entrerrios – the Spain captain and the only player who is still active from the team that won the gold medal at the World Championships 2005. He will play his 44th Men’s EHF EURO game, equalling the record of his brother, Alberto, who lead Spain’s all-time ranking in EURO caps.
“We start from scratch in a tournament in which there are many teams that can win a medal. Each year is more complicated, because the rivals are more powerful,” says Entrerrios, who was named MVP of the EHF EURO 2016.
Defence in this tournament will be key for Spain, with Los Hispanos boasting one of the best goalkeeping duos in the competition – Gonzalo Perez de Vargas and Rodrigo Coralles. The game against Czech Republic could be a good barometer to test Spain’s defence in top-level match conditions.
“I have a silver and bronze, and I intend to be on the podium at the end of the EHF EURO 2018,” says Perez de Vargas.
Denmark vs Hungary
Saturday 13 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com
There will be a lot of adrenaline flowing through Nikolaj Jacobsen’s veins before the game against Hungary, as the Rhein-Neckar Löwen’s coach prepares for the first real test in the Danish hot seat. Jacobsen should be satisfied with Denmark’s preparation for the EHF EURO. The Danes are leading the Golden League, a friendly tournament against France, Norway and one other team invited per stage of the competition, after two stages played.
Regardless of the defeat against Norway, 27:25, in stage two, which took place immediately prior to the EURO, Denmark have looked sharp and are one of the teams that appear set to challenge for a medal.
“We cannot afford slip-ups like what happened against Norway in competitive games, but we are satisfied with what happened in the friendly games. I think we are in better condition than one year ago,” said Lasse Svan after the Golden League victory against France.
In the first match, Denmark will be buoyed by their record against Hungary in the EHF EURO. They have won all four games between the two sides, including the 30:22 walkover two years ago in Gdansk in the preliminary round.
However, Hungary’s ambition is untamed, and Denmark should not expect a walk in the park against Ljubomir Vranjes’ team. There may be a number of changes in the Hungary side, especially with the retirement of Laszlo Nagy, as the average age is almost four years younger than that of the team that went to the World Championship in 2017.
But Vranjes, who is making his EHF EURO coaching debut after winning three gold medals representing Sweden in the same competition (1998, 2000 and 2002) brings the spirit a team needs to progress to the knock-out phases in such a competition.