Last chances for Austria and Serbia

PREVIEW: In Groups A and B, the final places in the main round are still up for grabs, while Croatia, Sweden, France and Norway fight for the best potential base for the next stage

Austria have their last chance to claim a main round place when they take on Norway on Tuesday. Photo: Anze Malovrh

In the final EHF EURO 2018 Preliminary Round matches, both Groups A and B see battles for the last main round spots: In Split, Serbia control their own fate when they take on Iceland; in Porec, Austria need France’s help and a win against Norway to leave Belarus behind.

GROUP A, Split
Serbia vs Iceland
Tuesday 16 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com

Provided Croatia win their third consecutive game at the EHF EURO 2018, Serbia can book the main round place if they win by four goals. If Sweden beat Croatia, any win is enough for Serbia to send Iceland home. But Serbia will not know whether they need to win by one or four when they take the court on Tuesday, so will need to aim for a victory of at least four goals.

For Iceland, a win, regardless of the score line, will send them to the main round.

“I am 100 per cent satisfied with what my team has done since the beginning of the tournament. I am proud of them and the signs are positive,” said Iceland coach Geir Sveinsson after the loss against Croatia.

Sveinsson employed a different approach against Croatia. Knowing there was a key game against Serbia looming, he rested important players like Gudjon Valur Sigurdsson and Olafur Gudmundsson in the first half.

As Marko Vujin will be out due to a hamstring injury, which also meant he missed the game against Sweden, it will be Zarko Sesum and Petar Nenadic who aim to steer Serbia to the crucial win. The two backs will play their 17th EHF EURO game, tying the all-time records of Ivan Nikcevic and Darko Stanic, who represented Serbia in four editions of the European championship.

Nenadic is the only Serbian player who has reached 10 goals in this tournament, and is the main offensive weapon. He is only six goals shy of hitting an overall tally of 50 at the EHF EURO.

The sides have met five times, with Iceland winning twice, Serbia once. Two games ended in a draw, including a 29:29 stalemate at the EHF EURO 2010 in Austria.

Croatia vs Sweden
Tuesday 16 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com 

It may be the home advantage, the team spirit or brilliant players like Luka Cindric, but Croatia are looking every bit like an authentic favourite to win the EHF EURO 2018.

Fresh off their 50th win in the EHF EURO, a convincing success 29:22 against Iceland, Croatia are looking to extend their winning streak to three games when they meet Sweden.

Parting with the raucous fans in Split will be hard for the hosts, but the Croatia side want to please their supporters one last time on Tuesday before heading to Zagreb for the next stage.

''Playing in Split was as amazing as always. The fans are an additional motive for us to fight, and I hope to find the same atmosphere in Zagreb in the main round,'' said Croatia’s hero from the first two games, Luka Cindric.

The praise for Croatia could quickly turn into criticism if the hosts do not win against Sweden.

The Scandinavian side are through to the main round after winning against Serbia by a five-goal margin. Therefore, all the points won in this game will be taken into the next phase of the competition.

A win is a must for Croatia, whose objective is to start their first game in Zagreb as the leader of the group, with the maximum four points.

“The first half against Iceland was far from ideal, but we are a team with character and we showed that in the second half. Let’s not get in front of ourselves, there is still a long way to go,” said Croatia centre back Igor Karacic.

It will also be a test for Sweden, who will be rooting for Serbia against Iceland, as they lost against their Scandinavian rivals in the first round.

The two teams met three times at the EHF EURO, with Croatia recording two wins, as Sweden won their first encounter, a 24:21 win in the EHF EURO 1994 semifinal.

GROUP B, Porec
France vs Belarus
Tuesday 16 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com

With the maximum of four points, France are already through to the main round, while Belarus are on two before their final match of the preliminary round. If Belarus take at least one point from the last preliminary round game, they will accompany the world champions to Zagreb.

If not, Belarus only proceed if Austria do not beat Norway. In case of a defeat and an Austrian victory, Belarus will leave Croatia.

The teams have clashed three times at EHF EURO final tournaments – and in 1994, 2014 and 2016, the winner was always France. The only Belarusian victory in an official match occurred in 1995, when they took a 32:29 win on home ground in EHF EURO qualification.

In 2018, coach Iouri Chevtsov’s team have had two remarkable matches – first beating Austria and then keeping pace with Norway for a long time, losing 28:33 in the end. Whether Belarus’ most experienced player, Barys Pukhouski, will miss the duel due to a flu and fever, is still not decided.

France are willing to take the role of favourites, but: “We definitely take Belarus seriously. This team have improved in the last years to become a serious contender,” said Timothy N’Guessan, the top scorer in France’s easygoing 33:26 win against Austria on Sunday.

Norway vs Austria
Tuesday 16 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com 

It is the memory that keeps the Austrian flame of hope burning: In June 2014, coach Patrekur Johannesson’s team eliminated Norway in the qualification for the World Championship 2015 in Qatar (28:26 on home ground, 28:28 away). “We know it, they know it,” says Johannesson, adding: “But in those matches we had a different squad, with an overall of 500 more caps on the tally.”

His side were chanceless against France in Round 2 quite early, so Austria rotated extensively, to save power for the crucial match against Norway. If right wing Robert Weber scores even one goal, he will become Austria’s all-time EHF EURO top scorer, currently he is equal on 59 with Viktor Szilagyi.

In Porec, the table stands at Austria on zero points, Belarus and Norway on two points each, and France leading the group on four. France are safely through to the next stage, but neither of the three other teams are assured a main round place.

If Austria beat Norway and Belarus lose to France, Austria book the main round ticket and Belarus are out. If Norway draw or win versus Austria, Austria are out and Belarus proceed.

“We still have room for improvement,” says Norway coach Christian Berge: “As every point counts for the main round, we need to win to remain in the race for the semi-finals.”

On Tuesday, line player Bjarte Myrhol will pass goalkeeper Ole Erevik to reach the highest number of EHF EURO matches for Norway – they are currently equal on 33 games.

written by Adrian Costeiu / Björn Pazen / cg