EHF journalists discuss: Who will take the trophy? Spain or Sweden?

TALKING POINTS: The business end of the EHF EURO 2018 is here, and it’s time to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the two finalists, as well as those contesting the bronze-medal game

Can Sweden continue their run of all wins in EHF EURO finals, or will Spain end their curse of four losses in European trophy matches? Photo: Uros Hocevar

“We thrive when being underdogs.” Simon Jeppson’s statement referred only to Sweden’s semi-final against Denmark, but the same could apply to the trophy match versus Spain. Both teams finished second in their groups in the main round, but bounced back admirably to clinch a berth in the finals.

Both teams have overcome major challenges. Spain lost two games against Denmark and Slovenia, and found themselves in a do-or-die situation against title holders Germany. They won that match easily, and the boost of confidence helped them take the semi-final against France in what was one of the biggest surprises of the competition – not due to the outcome, but the decisive nature of Spain’s victory over the world champions.

On the other hand, Sweden lost against Iceland, France and Norway, with the last loss almost throwing them out of contention for a medal. But the injury-depleted Scandinavian side managed to turn around their luck and earned their fifth final berth in EHF EURO history when they overthrew the Olympic champions in the second semi.

How do these teams compare before their encounter? Our ehf-euro.com journalists Adrian Costeiu and Björn Pazen debate the strengths and weaknesses of the two finalists, with Costeiu presenting the argument in favour of Sweden, while Pazen focuses on Spain.

The new pair or the indivisible teammates?

Björn Pazen: If any team in the world can cope with the injury of their number one goalkeeper and replace him with a legend, then it is Spain: After Gonzalo Perez de Vargas was ruled out with a knee injury, which occurred in the final main round match against Germany, one phone call was enough for Spain. Arpad Sterbik came, saw and saved. He was the personal nightmare of France’s penalty specialists, saving three of five in the semi-final.

In addition, there is Rodrigo Corrales – the new number one. In the semi-final he saved as many shots as both France goalkeepers together. Corrales profits from his daily work with Thierry Omeyer at Paris Saint-Germain. For sure, the Sweden duo Mikael Appelgren and Andreas Palicka are strong with an overall of 104 saves so far, but the Spaniards (87 saves) will compensate that with the combination of goalkeeping and defence.

Adrian Costeiu: I thought you were only talking about Spain, Björn, you do not need to count the Swedish saves! If you have a glance over the statistics, you will see that the Swedes are ranked third and fifth in the top goalkeeper ranking, with an amazing 36 per cent save rate for each of them. Andreas Palicka and Mikael Appelgren have excellent chemistry and this is not only down to them being teammates for the Sweden national team, but because they share duties for Rhein-Neckar Löwen.

Coached by Swedish legend Mats Olsson, who won the EHF EURO gold medal in 1994, the duo have shared the responsibility and saved the Scandinavian side countless time during this tournament. If you had them in your team, you would not trade them for any other goalkeeping pair.

Spain are better in defence, but Sweden can up their game

Björn Pazen: 23.71 – this number is all you need to know. It is the average number of goals the Spaniards conceded in each match at the EHF EURO 2018. They can switch from a rock-solid 6-0 to a highly movable 5-1 with Aitor Arino or Alex Dujshebaev as the ‘sweepers’.

Spain’s middle block of Viran Morros and Gedeon Guardiola represents world class, and – except in the game against Slovenia, when Morros received a red card after three suspensions – plays extremely hard with a small number of exclusions. Assisted by experienced back defenders such as Eduardo Gurbindo and Raul Entrerrios, this is the stronghold of the EHF EURO 2018. Sorry Sweden, but where do you think you can find a gap?

Adrian Costeiu: 25.85. I mean, that’s only two more goals per game, if you count the extra-time period against Denmark. Is it such a significant difference? I don’t think so. Sweden are the calmest team I have seen at this EHF EURO, and this translates to the coolness in the Scandinavian side’s defence in this tournament – and it is all down to unity and the sheer will to succeed.

Philip Henningsson was playing for a second-division team almost two years ago and now he is playing in the final of the EHF EURO. Max Darj has been anchoring the Swedish defence with great success. One aspect they will have to be careful of and improve in the final is the number of suspensions.

Now, their game is more fluid than in the previous years, with Sweden substituting the goalkeeper virtually every time they have a suspended player. But they have received 14 more suspensions than Spain; therefore, an average of two more per game. That could prove costly in a tense match.

Two near-equal teams after seven games

Björn Pazen: Spain (57 per cent) and Sweden’s (56 per cent) scoring efficiency are almost equal, as are the number of goals (196:195) – but, Spain have many more variations than the Scandinavians. Start with the penalties: Sweden 11/17, Spain 27/37. This statistic means the Spanish attackers – mainly Julen Aguinagalde – are difficult to control, so they are awarded many penalty shots. And their expert in this department is Ferran Sole, who netted 14 of 17, including six of seven in the semi against France.

Though it is Scandinavian handball that is famous for counter attacks and wing goals, Spain’s record is brilliant: 71 goals from wing players (including the penalties from Sole and Valero Rivera) is an exceptional figure.

But that’s not all: The best weapon is the axis of back-court players, working with line player Aguinagalde, who returned after a back injury, or Adrian Figueras. Further, Raul Entrerrios is the spiritual leader of their attack, and is even stronger than he was two years ago, when he was awarded EHF EURO MVP. Alex Dujshebaev profits from his Vardar experience – and the genes delivered by his father Talant, of course. 

Adrian Costeiu: It is hard to pick a side between Sweden and Spain only judging by hard, cold statistics. The numbers can be easily interpreted in many ways. But you have to be here, in Zagreb, to have the feeling that Sweden can do almost anything.

Coach Kristjan Andresson’s side had Johan Jakobsson and Albin Lagergren as right backs in the first two rounds of the competition, but both players have since been ruled out due to injuries. Did Andresson panic? No, he did not! At only 1.78 metres tall, usual wing Mattias Zachrisson was swapped in to right back and did a brilliant job against Denmark, scoring eight times. All while Simon Jeppson, the prime pick for the left back position, was also out, due to a sore throat. Therefore, Sweden can handle everything Spain can throw at them.

Why have a bench, when you can have a team?              

Björn Pazen: Corrales or Sterbik, Sole or David Balaguer, Aguinagalde or Figueras, Daniel Sarmiento or Entrerrios, Eduardo Gurbindo or Dujshebaev, Arino or Rivera – any coach in the world would be happy to have two names like these for each position. Spain’s alternatives are the heart of their game – it is not one player that takes the responsibility, they function as a team.

And this team has a mission: to end this curse of lost finals. Spain will make it on Sunday, they will take the first gold medal after four lost finals. Even the President of the Royal Spanish Handball Federation, Francisco Blazquez, has not been in a suit and tie since the start of the EHF EURO, but wears the team tracksuit – showing the world: we are a team, and we will make it. Sorry Sweden, but your golden series of four trophies in four EHF EURO finals will come to an end. ‘Hispanos’ will rule!

Adrian Costeiu: This is really where it gets interesting. Six of Linus Arnesson’s seven goals in the EHF EURO were scored in the semi-final against Denmark. Hampus Wanne scored three of his 11 goals at the tournament in the last match. But that is almost it.

Kristjan Andersson has done a brilliant job of distributing his players’ minutes. Only line player Jesper Nielsen has passed the 300-minute mark, but he is responsible for both defence and attack, and is probably the most complete double-threat player of the tournament. Sweden do not have an MVP, but they have a team. The bench is ready to step in!

Bronze-medal battle: the rematch of the Olympic Final

Björn Pazen: Their time to recover and prepare was shorter, but still, Denmark will take the bronze medal. Since the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, they know how to beat France in a crucial match, to take revenge for the home-turf final in Herning in 2014, when they were completely knocked-out by the French side.

France had never thought that they could be defeated at this EHF EURO after six wins from six matches, but finally had to recognise it the hard way. There is never a psychological advantage when you play a bronze final, but Mikkel Hansen will win the duel against his PSG teammate Nikola Karabatic, as the Danish goalkeepers will do against Vincent Gerard and Cyril Dumoulin.

Denmark will be more focused and will finally get their medal – coach Nikolaj Jacobsen will find some tactical aces.

Adrian Costeiu: France really looked weak for the first time at the EHF EURO 2018, and it cost them the final. They won the first six games and were confident entering the knock-out phase, but were really outpaced by the Spanish side.

A stunned France will be hard for coach Didier Dinart to bring back to life, but this could be their second bronze medal after the one won 10 years ago. Denmark will be tired, and it will be difficult for them to come back after such a disappointing loss to Sweden.

written by Björn Pazen / Adrian Costeiu / cg