Czechs and Slovenians eliminate each other from semi-final race

GROUP II REVIEW: A thrilling 26:26 draw awards Denmark with first place on the table, and means the final decision as to who proceeds to the semi-finals will be decided between Germany and Spain

Even nine goals from Ondrej Zdrahala - the current tournament's top scorer were not enough to beat Slovenia. Photo: Sasa Pahic Szabo.

When the final buzzer sounded, both sides were shocked and disappointed – as a rare situation occurred in the first match on the last day of EHF EURO 2018 Main Round games in Varazdin. With a win, either Slovenia or Czech Republic would have remained in the semi-final race, but as they recorded a 26:26 (11:12) draw, the teams eliminated both themselves and their opponents. The tragic figure was Czech Stanislav Kasparek, who missed the chance to secure a victory for his team when he hit the post on the final shot.

"The Czechs played a great tournament. I feel really sorry for their last shot and that they did not score the final goal, as they deserved the better result. So both teams have nothing. It was a hard game for both sides, as both teams had games yesterday," said Slovenia coach Veselin Vujovic after the match, as back Vid Kavticnik added: "The Czechs showed a great performance today and throughout the whole competition. It is good for handball that they are back again. We did not start as we wanted, but from the start of the second half on, we managed to score some easy goals and were backed by goalkeeper Urh Kastelic. In the end it was an open game."

Due to this draw, Olympic champions Denmark are confirmed as winners of Group II, even before they face the Macedonians in their last main round match. The second semi-final participant from Varazdin will be decided between Spain and Germany. For Spain, a draw is enough, while the Germans need to win.

Thanks to their top scorer Ondrej Zdrahala (awarded best player of the match after his nine-goal game) and their brilliant goalkeeper Tomas Mrkva, who saved 13 shots in the first half, the Czechs had a tremendous start – though they only had an 18-hour break after their victorious thriller against FYR Macedonia (25:24).

Though that win cost them a lot of power, Czech Republic avoided the famous Slovenian counter attacks with a quick reverse gear and were consistently ahead until the break. But then, they were hit hard with two direct cards against their defence specialists Jan Stehlik (minute 19) and Leos Petrovsky (minute 29) – both after fouls against Slovenia centre back Marko Bezjak.

The Czechs managed to score two goals even when they were short-handed after Stehlik’s suspension, forging ahead to 12:7, while the Slovenians had their turn profiting from numerical advantages later in the game. When at the advantage, Slovenia scored four times in a row, boosted by some brilliant actions from playmaker Miha Zarabec. Young goalkeeper Urh Kastelic, who had replaced Matevz Skok after nine minutes, was on fire again, following his great performance against Spain on Tuesday night.

Right after the break (12:11 for the Czechs), Slovenia accelerated, while the Czechs began to look tired for the first time. Again, it was Zarabec who scored for his team’s first lead, at 15:14 in minute 37.

Anyone who thought the tide would turn in Slovenia’s favour had not counted on Zdrahala. The current top scorer of the EHF EURO 2018 (42 goals) netted one after another to bring his side back on track with another four-goal advantage at 20:16. Knowing they were needed, the Slovenian supporters started their chants and songs – and it worked: Seven minutes before the final whistle, Slovenia reclaimed the upper hand, 23:22.

With 60 seconds to go, the result was level (26:26) and Slovenia held possession, but caused a technical fault and lost their chance to take the lead in the critical moment. Czech Republic coaches Jan Filip and Daniel Kubes took a time-out and their team created the scoring opportunity: Two seconds before the whistle, Kasparek hit the post, Slovenia ran down the court as the final buzzer sounded, and both sides felt the disappointment of the draw that eliminated them from the EURO.

"From the first moment on, we gave everything. In the end, five centimetres decided that the match ended with a draw. Although we did not win, I am just proud of our players. Maybe we have one more match," said Czech Republic coach Daniel Kubes, referring to the possibility that they will play the 5/6 placement match. 

written by Björn Pazen / cg