Eight things we know after the EHF EURO 2018 Preliminary Round

FEATURE: The preliminary round is over and our ehf-euro.com journalists are debating the eight major takes from the first 24 games

VELUX EHF Champions League-winning coach Raul Gonzalez has had a clear influence on the Macedonians' impressive preliminary round campaign. Photo: Nebojsa Tehic

One week in, the EHF EURO 2018 has seen some fantastic contests, exciting moments, milestone achievements and nail-biting finishes in the first 24 games.

After four teams were eliminated and the other 12 booked their passage to the main round, there is plenty to discuss. Our ehf-euro.com journalists highlight the best players of the competition up to now, which teams surprised and which underperformed, and the impact of the video technology.

France and FYR Macedonia top the rankings

If anybody had guessed that France and FYR Macedonia would top the main round rankings at the beginning of the second stage, it would have been quite surprising. France lost some stars and had to replace their middle block Luka Karabatic/Ludovic Fabregas, while the Macedonians were expected to rank below top guns such as Germany, Denmark or Spain.

But this is sport. FYR Macedonia finished with goal difference of +2 to top Group C unbeaten, which proves their efficiency. It is obvious that times have changed, and Kiril Lazarov is not the solo star anymore.

So far, young left wing Dejan Manaskov has played his best major tournament, the defence has been strong, and in attack, new coach Raul Gonzalez’s influence is clearly visible. Of course, there is always some luck if you win by one goal twice and draw in the last match – but all their points were well-deserved.

France are always among the medal and trophy contenders, but the current squad has still surprised in a positive way. Goalkeeper Vincent Gerard is playing an outstanding tournament (France’s first without Thierry Omeyer since 2001), 20-year-old Dika Mem is an attacking asset, and whenever it counts, Nikola Karabatic is an experienced shepherd for the young flock.

Noisy Croatian fans help Lino Cervar’s side

Judging from the perspective of fans, the EHF EURO 2018 has been a success, as handball addicts flock to see their favourite teams in action. Spaladium in Split was sold-out for each round, with 11,000 noisy Croatia supporters creating an outstanding atmosphere, which helped propel their side to two wins against Serbia and Iceland.

Croatia have not played in Split for nine years, and the wait pushed the fans – who stayed cheering the team for many minutes after the final whistle of the loss against Sweden – to give everything they had for their players.

With the move to the capital after the preliminary round, Croatia expect the same decibel level to be reached in Arena Zagreb.

How video technology changed the EHF EURO

It is the debut of instant-replay video technology at Men’s EHF EURO events, and few things have been discussed more – especially after the penalty decision in the Slovenia versus Germany match.

Referees and officials absolutely appreciate this technology, many teams agree, others disagree. If a tricky situation needs the support from technology to reach a final decision, why not? Human error occurs. But a key factor is the amount of use, which must be kept under control.

A veteran as the top scorer of the tournament

Kjetil Strand’s other-worldly 19-goal performance against Iceland at the EHF EURO 2006 – the most goals scored in one game in the history of the competition – will be hard to beat, let alone equal. But Ondrej Zdrahala, the 34-year-old Czech left back, came fairly close in their tough game against Hungary, scoring 14 goals to take his side to the main round, with a 33:28 victory.

With his 14-goal tally, Zdrahala levelled with his compatriot Filip Jicha, Hungary centre back Gabor Csaszar, Spain left back Iker Romero, and Ukraine left back Yuriy Kostetskiy for the second-best performance in EHF EURO history.

He is now the top scorer of the competition with 25 goals – four more than Norway right wing Kristian Bjornsen and Germany left wing Uwe Gensheimer.

Who went home, and why

Just like in 2016, Iceland took an opening win at the EHF EURO, before being eliminated at the end of the preliminary round. Their confidence was high after beating Sweden, but then they could not cope with the Balkan style of play against Croatia and Serbia. In the end, it was their fellow Scandinavians, Sweden, who decided Iceland’s fate, when they beat Croatia.

Apart from the goalkeepers and Nikola Bilyk, Austria were below the form of the rest of Group B. But the team and coach Patrekur Johannesson took the departure well, knowing that they are building up a team for the home EHF EURO in 2020.

In contrast, Hungary were very disappointed. When Ljubomir Vranjes was appointed as new head coach, hopes were extremely high, but in the crucial match against Czech Republic, they were too nervous and lacked a stand-out leader – which Laszlo Nagy was before his retirement from the national team.

Montenegro were only competitive against the Macedonians, with the absence of their superstar Vuko Borozan too much.

Which goalkeeper surprised

It’s hard to ignore Veselin Vujovic as the goalkeeper that surprised the most, as no one could have predicted that the Slovenia coach would stand in between the posts before a final penalty shot from Germany, when they met in the preliminary round.

But in all seriousness, goalkeepers played a key role in the preliminary matches in Croatia.

Some, like Bjorgvin Pall Gustavsson (ISL) and Viachaslau Saldatsenka (BLR), simply because of the number of saves; others, such as Vincent Gerard (FRA), Martin Galia (CZE), Mikael Appelgren (SWE) and Torbjorn Bergerud (NOR), because of their significance for their teams; and those, like German Silvio Heinevetter, who combine importance and spectacle.

Naming ‘the best’ goalkeeper of the first stage is hard – our votes go for a tie between Appelgren and Gerard.

The fans of the daily EHF EURO Live Show on Facebook and YouTube also cast their votes and funnily enough, chose a court player – Germany’s Patrick Groetzki – as having made the best save of the preliminary round.

Seven-on-six attack, a double-edged sword

The tweaking of the goalkeeper substitution rule, which came into effect from July 1, 2016, meant that teams who needed an element of surprise could easily replace the goalkeeper with a court player, thus creating a seven-on-six advantage in the attack. The more adventurous coaches immediately chose that direction, thereby creating important scoring runs that scaled the game in their favour.

The most obvious case was observed in the 25:25 draw between Germany and FYR Macedonia. Raul Gonzalez deployed the ultra-aggressive tactic for almost the entire first half, with goalkeeper Borko Ristovski being replaced from the first attack.

The move surprised Germany, as the Macedonian side took advantage of their two powerful line players, Stojanche Stoilov and Zharko Peshevski, and jumped to a 6:3 lead. But it ultimately backfired, as the title holders tweaked their defence and recorded a 7:1 run that brought then back into the game.

Croatia employed the tactic in the game against Iceland, resulting in a 5:0 partial at the start of the second half that was instrumental in their win. Lino Cervar’s move undermined Iceland’s defence for long enough that the Scandinavian side were left frustrated, and could not come back.

There is enough evidence that such a move can be an X-factor in crunch games, as it enables a team to surprise their opponents – but overuse of the tactic can also backfire.

Two Swedish players in EHF media’s preliminary round All-star Team

After 24 games, several players have already impressed the EHF media team. Based on their stats, and their contribution to their squads, here are our picks after the preliminary round:

Goalkeeper: Mikael Appelgren (Sweden)

Appelgren is second in the top goalkeeper ranking (based on percentage), with 32 saves from 77 shots (42 per cent) – only three per cent behind Jannick Green. However, Appelgren was instrumental in the win against Serbia and has played 40 minutes more than the Denmark player, facing 33 more shots.

Right wing: Kristian Bjornsen (Norway)

The 29-year-old wing has been one of the steadiest hands for Norway and scored 21 times, with a sturdy 75 per cent shooting efficiency. He has contributed at least six goals in each game.

Right back: Dika Mem (France)

The 20-year-old looks to be the next big thing for France. His physical strength and shooting ability helped France to be the only team with a clean record of only wins after the first round.

Centre back: Miha Zarabec (Slovenia)

The THW Kiel player scored 10 goals and dished out nine assists in the first three games. He received the best player of the match award twice, in the games against FYR Macedonia and Germany.

Left back: Ondrej Zdrahala (Czech Republic)

The Czech veteran led his team to the main round with his 14-goal game against Hungary. He looks to be in the form of his life, while leading the top goal scorer chart with a tally of 25.

Left wing: Uwe Gensheimer (Germany)

The current VELUX EHF Champions League top scorer has picked up where he left off in his club team, scoring 21 times in Croatia. He did not play the EHF EURO 2016 due to injury and is looking for his first medal in the competition.

Line player: Jesper Nielsen (Sweden)

Nielsen has been the second most-used player in the Sweden team, taking the court for 140 minutes. He was an integral part of Sweden’s wins against Serbia and Croatia, both in defence and attack.

written by Adrian Costeiu / Bjorn Pazen / cg