They say history repeats itself, but Spain were hoping to write their own story in Arena Zagreb on Sunday night, after losing their previous four EHF EURO Finals. For the first 30 minutes, it looked like coach Jordi Ribera’s side was not going to break the curse, but a new defensive approach, a brilliant game from centre back Raul Entrerrios, and the sheer experience their players brought to the court handed Spain their first ever EHF EURO title five years after they won the gold medal at the World Championship.
One day before the game, one of Spain’s most experienced players, Julen Aguinagalde, told ehf-euro.com that the EHF EURO 2018 trophy could very well be decided by an in-form goalkeeper. The 35-year-old line player, who is one of the most decorated Spanish players, was right – because once Mikael Appelgren got into his groove, Sweden started to take control of the game.
It was on the back of a 5:1 run between the fourth and 11th minutes that the Scandinavian side, considered by many to be the underdogs in the final, took the first lead. As Appelgren saved shot after shot, Sweden jumped to a comfortable 9:6 lead.
But the plucky Spain side did what they had done best at the EHF EURO 2018: stayed close to their opponents and took advantage of their mistakes. With a flawless performance capped by four goals from Ferran Sole in the first half, the All-star right wing of the EHF EURO 2018, Spain kept Sweden within reach, before shocking the Scandinavian team with a tactical change in defence.
Their traditional 6-0 was replaced by an aggressive 4-2, as Spain dared Sweden to shoot more with their backs, stopping the passes to the line players and wings, who excelled in the first part of the game. It helped Spain minimise the difference, but makeshift right back Mattias Zachrisson was once again superb and helped his team earn a two-goal lead at half-time, 14:12.
The 9:1 partial that handed Spain their first EHF EURO trophy
"After four losses in finals of the European championships, we knew we had to give everything in our power and play the best we can. In the first half they were the ones that outplayed us, they were better, but we talked in the break and told ourselves we are about to play the last 30 minutes of the tournament," said the All-star right back of the EURO, Spain's Alex Dujshebaev, after the match.
With the first attack of the second half, Sweden had the chance to jump to a three-goal lead, but missed the shot. Instead, Spain stunned the Scandinavian side with a 9:1 partial that saw Sweden score only once in the first 12 minutes of the second half – all of this while Aguinagalde’s statement was once against confirmed.
38-year-old Arpad Sterbik, who was a late call-up before the semi-final due to Gonzalo Perez de Vargas’ injury, was superb in goal for Spain during the game-winning run, saving eight shots.
While the physically-draining defensive style could have taken a toll on Spain, the high-risk approach from Ribera was ultimately the key to Los Hispanos’ first EURO title. As they lost their cool, Sweden recorded nine turnovers in the second half alone – scoring only three times in the first 22 minutes – while Spain ran riot in attack. Centre back Entrerrios was instrumental and it was no surprise that Ribera’s side created an unassailable 23:16 lead after 49 minutes.
The battered Sweden side found it impossible to attempt a comeback, while Spain celebrated their first ever title much to their joy of their fans, with a dominant six-goal victory.
"It was a game with two faces. In the first half we were in the lead, taking command, dominating the game. We could have led by more than two goals I think, but we had the lead and we were definitely positive," said Appelgren. "When we came out in the second half, we thought that we could run a lot, win over the fast breaks, and that backfired. Spain did a lot of fast breaks and scored some easy goals from the beginning. We fell in a Spanish trap because of their offensive defence.
"We got experience from this tournament. I hope we learn and play better the next time. Then I hope in the next EHF EURO in Sweden we can reach the final as well, and that we can win there. It's a long time until then, but I think for this young team, it's a very positive tournament and great experience," concluded the Sweden goalkeeper.
Spain are now directly qualified for the World Championship 2019, while Sweden, who lost the EHF EURO Final for the first time ever, will contest the play-offs against Netherlands.