04/01/2018

World bronze medallists seek European success

EHF EURO TEAM COUNTDOWN #10: Slovenia will be counting on the support of their fans and success from last year's World Championship to carry them through EHF EURO 2018

Photo: IHF

Coming off the back of a bronze medal from the IHF World Championship in Paris last January, Slovenia will be a team to watch in Croatia.

The location of the championships should give them a boost, as thousands of their fans are expected to give them support in Zagreb. When Croatia hosted their first EHF EURO 18 years ago Slovenia picked up their first Olympic ticket, finishing fifth.

Four years later they took silver in their capital Ljubljana, and as if to prove the advantage of their fans' support when they play close to home, they finished sixth at EHF EURO 2012 in Serbia.

The roster

Coach Veselin Vujovič has three big worries. On the eve of the tournament his defensive pillar Matej Gaber injured himself and will miss the competition. Right back Jure Dolenec and left back Nik Henigman are also both injured and are not likely to play at least in the preliminary round.

This changes Slovenia's attack and defence considerably. Celje's sharpshooter Žiga Mlakar will be the first choice on the right, alongside Vid Kavtičnik. On the left Vujovič has four options. The tall Borut Mačkovšek and Saša Barišič-Jaman, together with the strong Gregor Potočnik can play important defence roles alongside more attack-oriented Jan Grebenc. Line player Igor Žabič is set to make his debut, as well as Niko Medved on the left wing, even though he ran miles on the club level.

In total Vujović has 22 players preparing for EHF EURO, but a large number played a part in the world championship squad including all three goalkeepers (Matevz Skok, Urh Kastelic and Urban Lesjak).

The attack

With two highly skilled playmakers, Marko Bezjak and Miha Zarabec, Slovenia can set up one of the fastest handball paces in the world. Vujović is prone to often change his line up during the match, giving the advantage to long-distance shooters, but often when in trouble plays the fastest guys. 

To make the fight for all the playing positions more intense Patrik Leban, a strong player one-on-one, can also bring strength in the middle.

For years Slovenia searched for players who can net in from nine metres. They maybe do not have world class players for this, but as a team, can be dangerous from all positions. The right wing (Gal Marguč and Blaz Janc) seems stronger in attack then the left (Darko Cingesar and Niko Medved), but all of them run top fast breaks.

The defence

Two years ago Slovenia left Poland with only one point in three matches. But Sweden, Spain and Germany scored only 24 goals in average. Slovenia's 6-0 can cause problems for most of the top teams if agressive enough. 

Even though Vujović as a player was a world-class attacker, he often talks only about defence. Even without Gaber, Slovenia seem very tall, but now lack experience at the heart of their defence and a lot of defensive work is likely to be done by wingers Cingesar and Medved.

Slovenia has also made a lot of goalkeeper changes in recent times. However Skok and Lesjak have enough experience in top club matches and Kastelic is one of the biggest European talents. The team is able to transform and adapt to different styles of attack.

The coach

Veselin Vujović took over in 2015. Reaching the Olympic Games quarterfinals at Rio 2016 and winning a bronze medal at the world championship in France last year are results that made the handball crowd in Slovenia very happy.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are the next goal for Slovenia and Vujović as a national coach, but a close-to-home EHF EURO makes it an important stage as well.

It will be a special challenge for him, as he will once again face Macedonia – where he was once a national coach - and his home country Montenegro in the preliminary round. Vujović could become the first Slovenian coach to beat Germany in official matches.

Outlook

An early EHF EURO exit for Slovenia would be a huge disapointment and nobody is even thinking about it. Slovenia are favourites to make it at least to the main round in Varaždin.

With some points in their bag they can be very dangerous to return to Zagreb. Their world championship bronze is not a burden, but rather a boost, as well as the support from fans who will be able to make it to Croatia in under an hour.

But the foundations for more EHF EURO success will of course have to be made in the preliminary round, against Macedonia, Montenegro and Germany.

The 22 players selected by Slovenia for the Men's EHF EURO 2018

Goalkeepers: Matevž Skok, Urh Kastelic (both PPD Zagreb), Urban Lesjak (Celje Pivovarna Laško)

Left wings: Darko Cingesar (Aix-en-Provence), Niko Medved (Gorenje Velenje)

Left backs: Borut Mačkovšek (Celje Pivovarna Laško), Saša Barišič-Jaman (Nexe Našice), Gregor Potočnik, Jan Grebenc (both Gorenje Velenje), Nik Henigman (RIKO Ribnica)

Centre backs: Marko Bezjak (SC Magdeburg), Miha Zarabec (THW Kiel), Patrik Leban (Nexe Našice)

Right backs: Jure Dolenec (Barcelona), Vid Kavtičnik (Montpellier), Žiga Mlakar (Celje Pivovarna Laško), Nejc Cehte (Gorenje Velenje)

Right wings: Gašper Marguč (Veszprem), Blaž Janc (Kielce)

Line players: Matic Suholežnik (Celje Pivovarna Laško), Blaž Blagotinšek (Veszprem), Igor Žabić (Wisla Plock)

written by Uros Volk / jh / ts