Eight conclusions after the main round

FEATURE: There are only five games left at the EHF EURO 2018 and some teams have already returned home, with tough decisions in front of them. The most successful four are now racing towards the trophy

The EHF EURO 2018 main round saw Germany eliminated from the running to defend their title. They leave Croatia with a ninth-place ranking. Photo: Nebojsa Tejic

While France have never had a more successful campaign at the EHF EURO, winning all six of their games in the preliminary round in Porec and the main round in Zagreb, hosts Croatia and title holders Germany are out of the fight for the medals. It was a tough elimination for Croatia, who failed to proceed to the semi-final phase of an EHF EURO tournament for the first time in 16 years.

After the main round, the ehf-euro.com journalists try to identify the frontrunner for the MVP award, the biggest revelations of the tournament, and which coaches are under pressure after their teams did not have the success expected.

France’s best EHF EURO campaign

France have the chance to level with Sweden as the only team to win four gold medals at the EHF EURO. The world champions are riding a six-game winning streak, and are the team to beat in this tournament.

It is the first time France won their first six games at the EHF EURO, as they navigated through the preliminary round and main round without a blip on their overall performance.

It seems France have successfully identified what went wrong two years ago, when they beat Denmark to finish fifth. Since then, France have refreshed their side with young, bright talents.

Surprisingly, ‘Les Experts’ did not have the most effective defence, judging from the numbers of goals received. But they still have the most effective attack in the competition, with 189 goals scored over the six games played – 17 more than the second-placed Denmark.

Left wing Kentin Mahe has been more of a centre back in Croatia, Nikola Karabatic has become more of a facilitator – 26 assists – than a natural-born scorer, while, at only 20-years-old and on his debut at the EHF EURO, Dika Mem has shone in several games. All this occurred while Didier Dinart managed the playing time admirably, with no player averaging more than 41 minutes per game.

Watch out, France are the team to beat at this EHF EURO!

Germany step down from the throne

They fell eight steps down – defending champions Germany had an unexpectedly hard landing, to finish ninth on the final ranking. This tournament was completely different to 2016, when the ‘Bad Boys’ took the trophy.

 In Croatia, they turned from Bad Boys to sad boys. Two wins against Montenegro and Czech Republic – but also two draws (Slovenia and FYR Macedonia) and two defeats against the top nations Denmark and Spain, and all semi-final hopes were shattered.

Coach Christian Prokop was and is under public pressure, largely due to some decisions on nominations and tactics. The team made an unexpectedly high number of mistakes in attack – mainly in the darkest 10 minutes of the Prokop era, when Spain scored an 8:0 series in the crucial main round encounter.

Though they had the second most effective defence in terms of goals conceded and the extraordinary goalkeeping duo Andreas Wolff and Silvio Heinevetter, Germany were not remarkable, except in the opener against Montenegro. One year before they co-host the World Championship, this EHF EURO was not a step towards the ambitions to become the leading team in the next years.

A new right-wing generation for Spain

Why did Spain make it to the semi-finals? It was not only a question of defence and goalkeeping, but also the matter of the ‘post-Tomas-generation’.

When Jordi Ribera became national team coach after the 2016 Olympic Games, which Spain had not qualified for, he started rejuvenating the team and adding fresh blood. Even the spot of a Spanish legend was no longer secure: that of three-time Champions League winner and FC Barcelona team captain Victor Tomas.

At the World Championship 2017 in France, David Balaguer had more and more playing time. During qualification for the EHF EURO 2018, the HBC Nantes player became Ribera’s number one on the right wing.

And now? Tomas is out, Balaguer shares the position with Ferran Sole – who outscored Balaguer at the EHF EURO 2018. 36 strikes from the right wings, including eight penalty goals from Sole, underline the significance of this duo for Spain. Sorry, Victor – but they did a really good job!

An underwhelming performance from Croatia

After seven consecutive semi-final berths at the EHF EURO, Croatia failed to proceed to the knock-out phase. It was a heart-breaking moment for the hosts – in front of 15,000 raucous fans, they could not earn the draw against France that would have seen them through, as their comeback fell short in the last few minutes before the buzzer.

After a dream first 55 minutes for the home side against Serbia in their opening match, it all went quickly downhill, as Domagoj Duvnjak suffered a muscle injury. Croatia never looked in control, even when they won against Norway, Iceland or Belarus, with their back court missing their centrepiece – especially in the match against Sweden, which ended in a decisive loss, 31:35.

While Marko Mamic and Luka Stepancic had good moments, they did not stand out on the main stage. The responsibility looked overwhelming for 24-year-old Luka Cindric, as the centre back interspersed his 25 goals and 22 assists with 13 turnovers in the six games played at the EHF EURO.

It was also a case of a flat performances from the three Croatia goalkeepers – Ivan Stevanovic, Ivan Pesic and Mirko Alilovic, who had a combined 24 per cent save rate, insufficient for a notable success at the EHF EURO 2018.

The search for the MVP is on

Stalwarts such as Filip Jicha, Momir Ilic, Nikola Karabatic and Raul Entrerrios won the last four MVP titles at the EHF EURO. With the emphasis falling more on the team as a unit in 2018, rather than superstars, it will be harder than ever to pick the player that really embodies the features of the MVP.

As teams like Croatia and Germany are already out, the MVP will not come from those sides. Therefore, the focus is on France, Denmark, Spain and Sweden.

The usual suspects are possibilities, but the battle is on. Karabatic won the award twice, in 2008 and 2014, and is still a complete player, anchoring the French defence, but has played less than in the previous tournaments, with 201 minutes in six games.

Though Mikkel Hansen is fifth on the top scorer ranking, with 29 goals, he has been rather consistent than stand-out. Hansen is not thinking about an individual title: “The MVP title? No, not by any chance! I am only thinking about the team.”

Spain have been in up-and-down form, impressing consistently in defence, but struggling in attack, with former MVP Raul Entrerrios boasting a meagre 50 per cent shot efficiency after six games. As for Sweden, they have impressed with their team spirit and resilience, with no individual player standing out as they all sacrifice equally.

Therefore, will it be the tournament of a goalkeeper as MVP? Everything will be decided in the final games. France keeper Vincent Gerard has been amazing in the main round, enjoying a 38 per cent save rate, while Sweden’s pair Mikael Appelgren (36 per cent) and Andreas Palicka (35 per cent) are not far behind.

A tale of a successful underdog

A defeat, even a clear one, can have healing consequences – just ask Jan Filip and Daniel Kubes. The Czech Republic coaching duo have a secret they did not reveal: What did they tell their players after the 15:32 loss against Spain in their EHF EURO 2018 opener?

The Czechs, who were not among the top 10 at a European Championship since 2010, became the surprise package of this event, and are now playing for fifth position. They are the only side in Croatia to have beaten Denmark, and they were close to causing another surprise against Germany (19:22). They were lucky to leave the Macedonians behind and unlucky in the draw against Slovenia.

But current EHF EURO 2018 top scorer Ondrej Zdrahala and his team received praise such as “It is good for handball that they are back again.” (Vid Kavticnik, Slovenia).

And it is not only the goals of Zdrahala that push the Czechs, after their legend Filip Jicha finished his career. Their goalkeepers Martin Galia and Tomas Mrkva are among the best at the event, wing Tomas Cip is exceptional when it comes to counter attacks, and powerful, experienced star Pavel Horak is impressive at both ends of the court. It is not a young generation leading the Czechs, but one that can certainly motivate those coming through the ranks.

New rule, new goalkeepers

Goalkeepers have scored nine goals at the EHF EURO and the trend suggests the numbers will only go up from here. Goalkeepers have acknowledged that they have been training their shooting more and more in the last year.

On the reverse side of the coin, goalkeepers need to be faster than ever, as they must come back in the goal, after substituting an outfield player in attack. There is also the possibility of an outfield player saving a shot like Rune Dahmke did against Denmark, with a save that brought him the nickname of ‘Superman’.

Coaches under pressure

The rules of team sport always follow the same principles: If there is no success, there are questions for the coaches. Some teams, not only Germany, finished below expectations at this EHF EURO. Slovenia coach Veselin Vujovic missed the semis after the great show in the last years, including the bronze medal at the World Championship 2017. Though some players were ruled out by injuries – like Jure Dolenec and Matej Gaber – Slovenia had hoped for more than eighth position. They showed what they are capable of when they beat Spain.

In main round Group I, Serbia lost all three matches, and only took one win in the preliminaries. The same occurred for the Macedonians, who started their main round campaign as winners of Group C. After he steered Vardar to the VELUX EHF Champions League podium, the public had hoped for another Macedonian success, but in the end, coach Raul Gonzalez and his side could not make the thousands of fans in Arena Varazdin happy.



written by Björn Pazen / Adrian Costeiu / cg