Do not write off the Germans – this was the conclusion of the EHF EURO 2018 Main Round opener in Varazdin: After more than 45 minutes of playing far below their level, the defending champions struck back against Czech Republic to win 22:19 (9:10).
Players and fans knew who to thank for the victory – the incredible goalkeeper duo of Silvio Heinevetter and Andreas Wolff. Heinevetter had saved 12 shots in the first 48 minutes, then Wolff took over, allowing the Czechs just one single goal before the final buzzer. A 6:0 series, which took Germany from 16:18 to 22:19, decided the game.
The victory means Germany remain in the semi-final race, with four points in their account before the next main round matches against Denmark and Spain, while the Czechs stay on two points.
"We are very happy to win this match. Everybody could see the high significance of the game, as we had big problems with our nerves. Only in the final stages, we have shown the right confidence," said Germany coach Christian Prokop. "Our defence and goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter kept the game open, and in the end, Andreas Wolff played impressively. We played with high risk, but were successful. This is what counts."
After their two lucky draws against Slovenia and FYR Macedonia, the Germans were below their EHF EURO 2016 level again in the first half. Only goalkeeper Silvio Heinevetter (41 per cent save rate) and left back Steffen Fath (five goals before the break, eight in total, awarded as best player) were at their usual standard, while many others were below par – especially in attack.
On the other hand, the two wins against Denmark and Hungary had boosted the Czechs’ confidence, who played their main round opener without any pressure. They were well adapted to all Germany’s tactics, including the high-risk version of the seventh court player employed by the 2016 Olympic bronze medallists when the opponents are shorthanded. Goalkeeper Thomas Mrkva, who replaced Martin Galia in something of a surprise move, grabbed the chance to score into the empty goal for the 9:8.
The variety of the Czech attack was proven by the fact that seven different players made it onto the score sheet by the break, when the underdogs were ahead by 10:9. The only reason the more structured and motivated Czechs did not lead by a clearer margin was Heinevetter.
Within five strong minutes, and thanks to four more saves from Heinevetter, the defending champions recorded a 4:1 series to pull ahead to 15:14. But the small flame of hope was quickly extinguished by the Czechs. Right wing Tomas Cip added some spectacular goals, while Mrkva (10 saves) shut up his shop – even though he was hit by a hammer shot from Patrick Wiencek right in the face at one point.
Both sides made many mistakes in a thrilling, but not high-level game, which ended with the lowest number of goals scored so far at the EHF EURO 2018. When Paul Drux netted for the third unanswered German goal, his side reclaimed the advantage at 19:18. And when Ondrej Zdrahala (now back on the top scorer list with Kristian Bjornsen, both on 29 goals) missed a penalty against Andreas Wolff, who had replaced Heinevetter some minutes before, Jannik Kohlbacher struck for Germany’s first two-goal advantage. The Czechs were on the floor, the Germans had cheated the gallows.
"We were close, but not close enough. It is hard for me to speak on my feelings. On one side, I am really proud; on the other, really disappointed as we were close. To concede only 22 goals against Germany is a great number, but we were not efficient enough in attack – this was the problem," said Czech Republic coach Daniel Kubes.