Miraculous win earns Sweden first final berth in 16 years

SEMI-FINAL REVIEW: Without two of their important backs, Sweden withstood an incredible comeback from Denmark, qualifying for the final for the first time in 16 years thanks to a 35:34 win in extra time

Andreas Palicka was a key part of Sweden's momentous victory, recording a 39 per cent save rate against Denmark. Photo: Nebojsa Tejic

Sweden had to wait 16 years to qualify for the final of the EHF EURO, but they did it in style, with an extra-time win against Denmark, 35:34 ((14:16)(28:28)) – and what was their 50th overall victory in the competition. It will be Sweden’s fifth final, after the legendary ‘Bengan Boys’ had a 100 per cent success rate in EHF EURO trophy matches, winning in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2002.

"I feel amazing, this is a great victory, this is my first final in my life. After regular time, we didn't have a special strategy, we just went in thinking we have to play safe and play slow, we have to score and we have to win this game," said Sweden's left wing Jerry Tollbring.

"I have no words to analyse the match at the moment. There are so many emotions. Goalkeeping and defending gave us the chance to win the game," added head coach Kristjan Andresson.

Make-shift right back Mattias Zachrisson was Sweden’s hero, scoring eight times, while Niclas Ekberg and Jim Gottfridsson each tallied seven goals.

Mikkel Hansen promised a high-speed, exciting game in the second EHF EURO 2018 Semi-final and he was right – Denmark and Sweden did not disappoint.

It is in the DNA of Scandinavian handball players to deliver fast breaks and convert unthinkable shots into goals, and this is exactly what happened in Arena Zagreb on Friday night, as an all-time epic saw Sweden earn the final berth by a one-goal margin.

Sweden were on the edge of their seats on Wednesday, as they watched France win against Croatia from the team hotel – a victory that secured the record champions’ semi-final berth. When their fate was back in their own hands, Sweden quickly took advantage against Denmark.

Thriving as the underdogs, Sweden kept Denmark’s attack in check, jumping to a 10:7 early lead after 14 minutes, while the Olympic champions were unusually predictable in attack as only Mikkel Hansen, Rasmus Lauge Schmidt and Lasse Svan scored goals early on.

Prior to the semi-final clash, Hansen also underlined the need for tough defence even more rugged than in the first games, but his side looked far below their norm. While Denmark struggled, Sweden took advantage, taking the lead with spectacular goals, including an in-flight gem from Ekberg.

It quickly went from bad to worse for Denmark, with coach Nikolaj Jacobsen taking two time-outs in the first 20 minutes. But little changed – Sweden consistently stopped their opponents, and Hansen was the only dangerous attacking weapon for Denmark. The PSG superstar scored six goals in the first half – 43 per cent of his team’s 14 goals – as Denmark trailed 14:16 at the break.

"Sweden deserved the victory. They were sometimes two steps, sometimes only a little step ahead of us. We fought very well and never gave up, but every time we got a chance to get closer, we failed against Palicka. He was the great hero for Sweden," Denmark head coach Nikolaj Jacobsen summarised.

"Our goalkeepers did not play that well. We are very disappointed, we had hoped for more, but Sweden deserve to be in the final."

Impressive Zachrisson pulls Sweden in front

Without Simon Jeppson (a sore throat) and Albin Lagergren (injured), and with a make-shift right back in the form of usual right wing Mattias Zachrisson, Sweden opened the second half with a 3:0 partial.

Four consecutive saves from goalkeeper Andreas Palicka, who increased his save percentage to 50 per cent, kept Sweden in front, as they opened an impressive five-goal gap, 20:15, with 20 minutes remaining.

As Mikkel Hansen continued to hammer in goal after goal, becoming Denmark’s all-time top scorer at the EHF EURO as he overtook Lars Christiansen’s record to reach an overall tally of 192 goals in the competition, his side were on track for a miracle comeback.

It took them 20 minutes, but Denmark finally levelled the game, 25:25, with five minutes to go, as the depleted Swedish side began to look physically drained. Yet they found their inspiration in Zachrisson, who scored twice to catalyse another 3:0 partial.

With Sweden at a three-goal advantage and two minutes on the clock, the game appeared to be over, but Denmark scored the goals they needed in the space of 110 seconds. Lasse Svan converted the last two goals, handing Denmark the lifeline of an extra-time period.

It was the stunned looks on the Swedish faces that made Denmark appear the favourites in extra time. But it was again a matter of Lauge and Hansen – who scored a combined 23 goals – against Sweden. And this time, Denmark lost.

Sweden punish aggressive Denmark

The two teams traded easy goals in extra time, but in the end, it was Sweden who were more focused and snatched the game, 34:33, taking advantage of Jacobsen’s aggressive seven-on-six approach. Another superb shot from Zachrisson secured the win for Sweden in the dying seconds.

The gold-medal match on Sunday will be Sweden’s fifth in history, and is a repeat of the EHF EURO 1998 Final in Italy, when Sweden defeated Spain 25:23.

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg