Two underwhelming performances in a row left the Croatian fans wondering if their team had any chance to challenge for a medal at the EHF EURO 2018. There were many aspects of the game to correct, but Croatia will live another day after their 32:28 (17:15) victory against Norway in their second main round match.
The much-needed improvement in the Croatian goalkeeping circle finally came on Saturday night in a sold-out Arena Zagreb, where Ivan Stevanovic lifted the hosts past Norway with a 14-save game.
"I knew it would be a hard game, but I think we deserved to win. We played really good defence and we were able to stop their fast transition," said Croatia coach Lino Cervar. "It is important that we showed that we can play like a team, even without Duvnjak."
There was immense pressure for the home side, as a defeat would have left them with slim chances to progress to the semi-finals. But they rose to the occasion admirably, opening with a 3:0 partial after three minutes, while limiting what was the most effective attack in the competition after the preliminary round.
The goal area was one of the vulnerable areas for the hosts, but Stevanovic was key as Croatia dominated the first half against Norway. His 32 per cent save rate was a big improvement from his record in the first four games, as Croatia opened a healthy 9:5 lead after 15 minutes.
A milestone from Ivan Cupic, who became Croatia’s all-time top EHF EURO goal scorer with 152 goals – one more than legendary centre back Ivano Balic – saw the noisy fans in Arena Zagreb cheer even louder for their team.
But Norway slowly crawled back into contention, with another fine performance from playmaker Sander Sagosen and right wing Kristian Bjornsen, as they cut the difference to only one goal, 15:14, two minutes from half-time.
Decisive 37 per cent save rate for Stevanovic
As both teams continued to trade goals in the high-octane battle, it became clear that Croatia had the upper hand, as they solved their problems from the nine-metre line. A 5:1 partial, inspired by Luka Cindric and Manuel Strlek, saw the hosts take a 24:20 lead.
Sander Sagosen singlehandedly led the Norwegian side, with eight goals scored, while the rest of the World Championship 2017 silver medallists’ attackers seemed to have little answer for Croatia’s defence.
Backed into a corner by two suspensions in the same play, Croatia bounced back admirably, and a fast break from Strlek brought them closer to the win, 28:24, with 11 minutes to spare. The 29-year-old left wing was Croatia’s top scorer, with six goals.
Several Stevanovic saves later, as he reached a tally of 14 to improve his record of 18 from the first four games combined, Croatia enjoyed a 32:28 win – their fourth in five games in the competition, much to the joy of the 15,000 raucous fans in the sold-out Arena Zagreb.
"I think the problem was in our defence. They played really well. We didn't help our goalkeeper like we wanted to and then it's difficult...We received 32 goals. That's too much," said Norway back Kent Robin Tonnesen. "We played good in the attack, had many good chances, but we got stopped."
Croatia are now closer to a semi-final berth, levelling with France at the top of the group, while Norway’s chances decreased with the loss.