France and Denmark looked like the prime favourites to book a place for the winner-takes-all EHF EURO showdown in Zagreb at 20:30 local time on Sunday night, but the two powerhouses were rocked by teams that thrive as underdogs, as Sweden and Spain shocked their opponents after two exciting games.
History could be written if Spain win the game, which will be streamed live on ehfTV, against Sweden. ‘Los Hispanos’ have never taken the gold medal at the EHF EURO, losing all four finals played up to now – including one versus Sweden 20 years ago, 23:25.
The Scandinavian side have a strong history in EHF EURO Finals, boasting a 100 per cent winning record in the four games played during the ‘Bengan Boys’ era. But that was a long time ago, so there is pressure on the current Sweden team.
“I can only hope this trend will stay the same, can’t I?” says a light-hearted Jesper Nielsen, the Sweden line player, who has been the core of his team’s defence. But heavy legs could sway the result in Spain’s direction, as Sweden needed 70 minutes to beat Denmark in a high-octane game.
“Am I tired? I played only 68 minutes against Denmark, I am not tired! Had it not been for the two-minute suspension I got, probably I would have gone for 70 minutes,” jokes Nielsen, whose good mood reflects the positive atmosphere within the Sweden team throughout their campaign. “I think I might have more suspensions in the final to take some time off.”
“We want to break the tradition”
The gold medal at the EHF EURO has been Spain’s kryptonite for 20 years, but ‘Los Hispanos’ hope that the fifth time will be the charm.
There are 10 players from the team that lost the EHF EURO 2016 Final against Germany two years ago, including Raul Entrerrios, Arpad Sterbik and Julen Aguinagalde – the most decorated members of the Spain national team.
Sterbik was a late call-up for the team, as he replaced Gonzalo Perez de Vargas before the semi-final against France. But the 38-year-old goalkeeper immediately had a significant impact, as he saved three penalties to boost Spain’s confidence – and demoralise France.
“The history says Sweden should win, but the game will be played on the court, without any history present. It is in our hands,” says Aguinagalde, who won a silver medal at the EHF EURO 2016 and bronze at the EHF EURO 2014.
The 35-year-old line player has been at the core of the team that became world champions in 2013 for many years, and hopes that experience will propel Spain to their first-ever victorious EHF EURO Final.
“We want to break that tradition, of course. I do not see it as a bad omen. We have our fate in our hands,” says captain Raul Entrerrios.
“Defence is very important, as well as the goalkeepers. Both teams have very good goalkeepers and many times, the finals have been decided by them. So, I hope Rodrigo and Arpad, who are a very good pair, will have good games,” says Aguinagalde.
Spain’s defence has been superb in Croatia, conceding only 166 goals – an average of 23.7 per game, exactly three less than Sweden’s average record. In attack, the finalists are separated by only one goal scored at the EHF EURO 2018: 196 for Spain, 195 for Sweden.
Will Spain’s defence come out on top for the first time in a European trophy match? Or will the sheer character and team spirit of the Swedish side bring them their fifth gold medal at the EHF EURO?