World Championship 2017 bronze medallists Slovenia are already under pressure after their opener: Thanks to a top performance from Dejan Manaskov (eight goals), a great fighting spirit until the final buzzer, and vocal support from the stands, FYR Macedonia started their EHF EURO 2018 campaign victorious, winning the combative battle 25:24 (11:11).
In the end, it was a double strike from the Lazarov brothers Kiril (seven goals in total) and Filip that was the key in the rollercoaster ride in Arena Zagreb. Thus, the Macedonians did not only stop the Slovenians (without their injured stars Jure Dolenec and Matej Gaber) from recording their 40th win in EHF EURO history, but clearly boosted their own chances of proceeding to the main round.
Thanks to their individual class and strong defence, Slovenia were constantly ahead from the 3:2 through to the half-time buzzer. Ziga Mlakar, Champions League club Celje’s top scorer, who contributed four of the first seven Slovenian goals, helped Veselin Vujovic’s team pull ahead to 7:4. The thousands of Slovenian fans in the stands – who had a vocal competition with the Macedonians – responded enthusiastically, but then had to realise that even a 10:7 advance after 25 minutes was not enough to take the lead to the dressing room.
After a time-out called by their Spanish-born coach Raul Gonzalez, the Macedonians turned the tide, first thanks to a buzzer-beating equaliser from young Filip Taleski for the 11:11 half-time score, then courtesy of a perfect restart after the break. When the Slovenians did not score for nine minutes, FYR Macedonia turned a 9:11 deficit into a 15:11 lead. In that period, Veszprém’s left wing Manaskov was on fire.
"(It was) really a tough game as we don’t have good tradition against Slovenia - we don't have many wins in our matches, so these are very important two points in the championship. It is always tough to play on the opening game, pressure was on high level. We didn’t start like we wanted, missed a lot of shot, but in the second half we came better and deserved points!“
But still, nothing was said and done, as Veselin Vujovic – one of Gonzalez’ predecessors as Vardar coach – found the right tactics. Thanks to a 6:2 series, mainly off goals resulting from one-against-one actions, Slovenia levelled the result again at 17:17. Then, with a double strike from Veszprém’s powerful line player Blaz Blagotinsek, the World Championship 2017 bronze medallists took the first lead in the second half at 21:20, nine minutes before the end. In between, Slovenia back Darko Cingesar received his third suspension and was sent off with a red card.
The Macedonians, who did not have that many top-level options on the bench, were running out of power– except one: Manaskov. The son of Macedonian legend Pepi Manaskov, ran and ran and ran, and when he put the score at 23:23 it was his eighth and final goal.
Together, Manaskov and the red-and-yellow-dressed fans boosted his team, who cheated the gallows in the end. While Slovenia missed three chances in a row, the Lazarov brothers Kiril and Filip managed to take their team ahead to 25:24 in minute 57 – and finally, those were the last goals of the thriller, for which Slovenian Miha Zarabec was awarded best player.
“We are disappointed. We made too many mistakes and we lost a lot of energy. It was a tough game, but I want to thank the spectators who came to support us. On Monday there is a new game and we will do our best to win it," experienced Slovenian right back Vid Kavticnik.