While Sweden and France begin EHF EURO 2018 Main Round Group I with four points, and therefore as early favourites to proceed, Croatia must bounce back against Belarus, after their heavy loss to Sweden in the last preliminary match.
Norway are starting the next stage with two points, as they vie for their second consecutive semi-final berth. The Scandinavian side will meet Serbia in the opening match of the main round.
GROUP I, Zagreb
Serbia vs Norway
Thursday 18 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com
Serbia were crying tears of disappointment after their 29:26 win against Iceland, as a four-goal victory would have seen them through – regardless of the result between Sweden and Croatia.
Two and a half hours later, the party was on in the Serbia team hotel, as Sweden’s win meant that Jovica Cvetkovic’s side were through to the main round in Zagreb, while Iceland were knocked out.
“At one point, we almost gave up because we thought there was no chance of winning this in the way we wanted,” said Serbia goalkeeper, Vladimir Cupara, who made nine saves against Iceland.
Serbia ended their seven-game winless streak at the EHF EURO against Iceland, and now have a mountain to climb if they want to challenge for the higher places. Though they are the favourites in this encounter, there is no room for error for Norway, as they eye their second semi-final berth in a row after they made the penultimate stage for the first time in 2016.
Right wing Kristian Bjornsen has been a consistent contributor for Norway, with 21 goals scored in the preliminary round, while playmaker Sander Sagosen has tallied 22 assists for the Scandinavian side. Sagosen will reach his 50th EHF EURO goal if he puts six past Serbia.
“Before the start of the EURO, I said that Sweden is one of the favourites. Croatia, on the home court, and Serbia will be also tough opponents. But if we play the best we can, we have every chance,” said Norway coach Christian Berge.
Croatia vs Belarus
Thursday 18 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com
After two impressive wins against Serbia and Iceland, Croatia did not stand a chance against Sweden and recorded a tough loss, 35:31, the hosts might come to regret later in the tournament.
It was an out-of-sorts day for the Croatia side, who allowed the highest number of goals against them ever in 87 matches at the EHF EURO.
“Sweden were simply better and we must learn from that. There are more matches in the main stage and everything is going to depend on us,” said Croatia left wing Manuel Strlek after the game.
However, the 11,000 vocal fans gave their team a fond farewell at the end of the match, which was their last game in Split before departing for Zagreb.
Belarus will not bring any points to the main round, as their only win was against eliminated Austria. Considering Belarus’ results, it seems the odds are very much in favour of Croatia.
The Croatian fans will hope for more of the same from Ivan Cupic in the next matches. The right wing tallied seven goals against Sweden and levelled with legendary Ivano Balic as the all-time top scorer in the EHF EURO for Croatia, with 151 goals.
The two sides have met three times at the EHF EURO, with Croatia sweeping the games. Even their lowest win two years ago was a convincing one – a 27:21 result in the preliminary round.