Plucky Belarus make Croatia sweat for the win

GROUP I REVIEW: Belarus surprise Croatia with a tough challenge to start the main round, forcing the hosts to fight until the last second to earn a 25:23 victory in their first match in Zagreb

The young team of Belarus almost sprang a surprise at the expense of the hosts. Photo: Uros Hocevar

After their underwhelming loss against Sweden to finish the EHF EURO 2018 Preliminary Round in Split, there was much to improve on both sides of the court for Croatia. The defeat to Sweden was mainly a question of weak defence and a lack of goals from the back court, who were missing in action two days ago.

The hosts improved their form a little against Belarus, who gave them a scare before Croatia returned to their winning run, and jumped to a 25:23 (15:12) win in their opening game in the capital.

"I believe the problem was us not being able to make a more significant difference in the terms of result and finish the match calmly," said Croatia right back Luka Stepancic. "We were giving them the motives to get back into the match, but at the end one good ball, one good save, and two points are here.''

It took line player Zeljko Musa only six minutes to score three times against the Belarusian side, and he beat his overall tally from his 93 minutes played in the first three games in that short period.

But as Croatia tried to improve their lead, their opponents managed to keep the score line in check. A 5:1 run, spurred by Luka Cindric and Marko Mamic, saw the hosts take a commanding 13:8 lead as their powerful nine-metre line returned to action.

Cindric leads Croatia to late victory

However, the game was not the walk in the park the Croatian fans expected. A plucky Belarus side managed to keep the hosts in check, as the game was anyone’s to win with 15 minutes to go, when Croatia held a far-from-comfortable 19:17 lead.

It quickly went from bad to worse. The hosts’ nine-metre line reverted to being powerless and, after a surprising 3:1 run, Belarus levelled the score for the first time in the game, 23:23, with two minutes on the clock.

Their experience helped Croatia edge a hard win, as Lino Cervar once again employed the ultra-aggressive tactic of taking out his goalkeeper to create a 7:6 advantage in attack. But, rather than the collective game, it was Luka Cindric who helped Croatia clinch the hard-fought 25:23 win.

"We wanted to win, but at the end we didn't make it. I think my team played very well and I am proud," said Belarus coach Iouri Chevtsov. 

Croatia are now in a four-way tussle for two semi-final berths with France, Sweden and Norway, as all teams have four points, with Sweden and France to play their first main round matches on Saturday.

On the other hand, Belarus and Serbia are already out of contention, as they cannot pass any of the other sides in Group I.

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg