“A handball classic” provides late drama with all to be decided

GROUP I PREVIEW: Four teams have the chance to progress to the semi-finals, as the blockbuster between unbeaten France and hosts Croatia highlights the last day of the main round in Zagreb

EHF EURO 2016 semi-finalists Norway are one of the four teams vying for the two tickets to the medal round in Group I. Photo: Nebojsa Tejic

The math is ruthless and does not care about feelings. The only team with a 100 per cent winning record at the EHF EURO 2018, France, could be out if they lose heavily against Croatia and Sweden win against Norway.

With Serbia and Belarus the only two teams in main round Group I that are out of contention, there is no shortage of late drama, as only the first two sides in the final ranking will proceed to the medal round.

Sweden have the chance to claim their 50th EHF EURO win, but are not guaranteed a place in the semi-finals even if they win against Norway – they must await the result of the final game of the main round between France and Croatia.

Serbia vs Belarus
Wednesday 24 January, 16:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com

It is the game that will decide who finishes last in this group, as both teams are on zero points before their final game at the EHF EURO 2018.

Both Serbia and Belarus enter the last match of the main round after nine-goal hammerings on Monday, as they could not contain France and Sweden, respectively.

It could be the last game in the Serbia national team for 31-year-old Petar Nenadic, who hinted at retirement from the national team after the end of the tournament. Nenadic is the top scorer for Serbia at the EHF EURO, with 23 goals in the first five games

Belarus and Serbia met in the qualification phase for the EHF EURO 2018, with Belarus winning 36:27 in Serbia, before the second game finished in a 27:27 draw.

Sweden vs Norway
Wednesday 24 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com

A win against Norway in their last game of the main round phase might not be enough for Sweden to progress to the semi-finals, as they also rely on the result of the France versus Croatia clash. Therefore, the Scandinavian side could be the first team ever to miss out on a place in the EHF EURO Semi-finals with an eight-point tally after the main round.

“It is quite devastating to see that progressing to the next phase of the competition is out of our hands. But I do not think that France want Croatia in the semi-finals, so I think they will win that game. Therefore, it will be up to us,” said Sweden right wing Mattias Zachrisson.  

Sweden’s form has been in seesaw shape. They lost their first game at the EURO against Iceland, before bouncing back admirably against Croatia in a game that could end up deciding the semi-final berth. In another key match, against France, Sweden were defeated by a surprisingly decisive six-goals margin.

Still, there is no room for error against Norway – the only team that has put serious pressure on France so far. Norway have the smallest chance of the four sides in Group I battling for a semi-final berth however, they had a four-day rest ahead of the crucial last match, while Sweden played Belarus on Monday, winning 29:20.

“We are playing good in attack, but we leave too many doors unlocked in defence. That needs to change if we want to be successful,” said Norway centre back Sander Sagosen, who has scored 29 goals and assisted another 21 at the EHF EURO 2018.

If Sweden win, it will be their 50th victory at the EHF EURO – a feat achieved by only four other teams: Croatia, France, Spain and Denmark.

Sweden and Norway have played seven mutual games, with Sweden winning six of them, including the 5/6 placement match at the EHF EURO 2008 – their most recent encounter.  

Croatia vs France
Wednesday 24 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com

As they take eight points into the final round, it might seem odd that France are not yet through to the semi-finals, though they won their first five games in a convincing fashion. ‘Les Experts’ have everything to play for, including first place in the group, which they might not achieve if they lose to Croatia.

“I expect a great atmosphere. Someone told me the game against Croatia will be a handball classic, and it starts to feel like this a little bit. I have never experienced personally playing here in the full hall of Croatians, so I'm looking forward to it,” said France left wing Kentin Mahe.

Everything is at stake for Croatia, who will know what result they need to proceed to the semi-finals when they take the court. A loss for Sweden against Norway could see the hosts through to the penultimate stage even if they lose to France.

A big advantage for Croatia is the four-day break they had prior to this match, which should mean they are physically superior to France. However, France coach Didier Dinart managed his players’ minutes carefully, as the stars did not see more than 30 minutes on the court against Serbia on Monday.

“Every fan wants success, and we want to show up in this game and win it for them. France have very good players, they have a very physical style of play, and we must find an answer for their 5-1 aggressive defence,” said Croatia coach Lino Cervar.

Nikola Karabatic will become France’s record holder for number of EHF EURO appearances, as he will reach 58 matches – one more than his former teammate and current coach Dinart.

There has been a long history between two of the best sides in the world over the last 20 years, with a total of 22 meetings. France have won 13 games to Croatia’s eight, and have come out on top of Croatia three times in their last four mutual EHF EURO clashes, including the 25:21 win in the final eight years ago in Vienna.

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg