Defence will be the key in clash of the titans

SEMI-FINAL PREVIEW: EHF EURO 2016 silver medallists Spain take on current world champions France in the opening semi-final, hoping to continue on the path to their first European trophy

Adrien Dipanda will be a crucial part of France's middle block in the defensive battle against Spain. Photo: Nebojsa Tejic

The defending world champions and three-time EHF EURO champions France take on the EHF EURO 2016 runners-up Spain in the first EHF EURO 2018 Semi-final in Zagreb on Friday. While France seemed to cruise through the tournament with only wins, Spain had tough nuts to crack, but are confident of making the last but one step towards their first ever EHF EURO gold medal.

SEMI-FINAL ONE, Arena Zagreb
France vs Spain
Friday 26 January, 18:00 local time, live on ehfTV.com

It is the sixth EHF EURO Semi-final for France and the eighth for Spain – but in terms of success, Nikola Karabatic & Co are far ahead of their opponents. While Spain made it to four EHF EURO finals and have not won any gold medals so far, France have taken three trophies already – funnily enough, in four-year-cycles: 2006, 2010 and 2014.

France assistant coach Guillaume Gille would be pleased if the four-year series continues: “If it is like this, please gives us the trophy already, then we do not have to play anymore. But to be serious: We have a young team in a state of transition. But those young guns already take huge responsibility.”

France are the only EHF EURO 2018 team with a clean record of six wins, while Spain made it to the semi-final despite two defeats against Denmark and Slovenia. They booked the ticket in style, when they eliminated defending champions Germany in the last main round match in Varazdin.

Most of the 34 duels of the two powerhouses have been crucial encounters, and most of the time, France won (20) – like in 2006 in Zurich, when the current world champions took their first ever EHF EURO trophy by beating Spain in the final 31:23. The last two times they met in the semi-finals of major competitions, France went on to win the trophy, as they did at the EHF EURO 2014 in Herning (30:27) and one year later at the World Championship in Qatar (26:22).

Due to those results, and also the current level, nearly all of the Spain team name France as the favourites to win the semi: “France showed their best performances during the tournament, and they know how to win. But it is one match, and we will definitely get our chances,” says Spain coach Jordi Ribera.

“We have had two tough matches against Slovenia and Germany at the end of the main round, so I hope we are fresh enough on Friday. Mainly the crucial match with Germany was good for our confidence. I think the defence will decide this match.”

Spain conceded the lowest number of goals during the EHF EURO 2018 (143), while France had the fifth most effective defence, but were much better in attack. “Everything can happen from now on, there is no favourite in our semi-final. Little things will decide on the winner, mainly the confidence the teams have. The whole tournament has proved that all teams are very close,” says France superstar Nikola Karabatic. Like him, Michael Guigou and Luc Abalo can win their fourth EHF EURO trophies.

Both teams’ players know each other well from their club competitions: Spain goalkeeper Rodrigo Corrales plays for French champions Paris Saint-Germain, Eduardo Gurbindo and David Balaguer for HBC Nantes, Daniel Sarmiento for Saint-Raphael, Ferran Sole for Toulouse, and Iosu Goni for Pais d’aix. On the other hand, France’s Dika Mem and Cedric Sorhaindo face five FC Barcelona teammates.

“As we faced them so often, there is no room for potential surprises,” says Guillaume Gille, who praises Spain’s defence: “They know exactly what to do, they like to tease the opponents in their movable way and cause their opponent’s mistakes. Besides, their goalkeeper duo belongs to the best in the world.”

written by Björn Pazen / cg