Preliminary round winners begin main round campaigns

GROUP I PREVIEW: Sweden and France are set to tough it out in their first main round game, while the match between Croatia and Norway is a do-or-die clash

France finished the preliminary round as the only team to take wins in all three matches. Photo: Anze Malovrh

The second day of EHF EURO 2018 Main Round matches for Group I in Zagreb sees a tussle between four powerhouses. There is little room for error for Sweden, France, Croatia and Norway as the tournament edges closer to the business end.

While Sweden and France start their main round campaigns in a very strong position, with the maximum number of points after the preliminary matches, Croatia and Norway are challenging for the semi-final berths are winning their first games in Zagreb. The rematch of the EHF EURO 2016 bronze-medal match looks to be of great importance to the group’s final ranking.

Serbia and Belarus – both out of the running for the semi-finals – have the day off.

Sweden vs France
Saturday 20 January, 18:15 local time, live on ehfTV.com

It was not the dream start Sweden envisioned for the EHF EURO, but the Scandinavian side managed to bounce back after the loss against Iceland, enjoying convincing wins against Serbia and Croatia in Group A.

Local punters said that the win against the hosts was the most beautiful and conclusive since the golden era of the ‘Bengan Boys’, which saw Sweden earn four gold medals at the EHF EURO between 1994 and 2002 – the record number of titles.

Sweden’s confidence is now very high: "If we play this kind of a handball, we have really great chances of producing some good games, maybe getting some wins, and maybe we can proceed from the main round," said captain Niclas Ekberg.

However, their first game of the main round might be the toughest yet, as Sweden meet the only team with a 100 per cent record after the preliminary round, France, in a clash of two winners from Groups A and B.

After impressive performances from talented young players like Dika Mem, Nedim Remili and Timothey N’Guessan, France have an immaculate record, with three wins over Norway, Belarus and Austria.

20-year-old Mem, the FC Barcelona right back, has been of particular importance, scoring 15 goals in the first three games and establishing himself as a tough attacker to stop.

"Now we must prepare for the next games, mainly for the one against the hosts. Croatia want to take revenge against us. All the country will be behind their team. We have three days to prepare for this crucial encounter," said France coach Didier Dinart.

The two sides have met each other 20 times, splitting the number of victories evenly, with 10 wins apiece. France have come out on top in some of the most crucial encounters – including the 2012 Olympic final and the World Championship 2017 Quarter-final.

Croatia vs Norway
Saturday 20 January, 20:30 local time, live on ehfTV.com

This is Croatia’s do-or-die game, as the hosts have been seriously underperforming in the last two matches. Domagoj Duvnjak’s injury has hit Croatia harder than they anticipated, and the back court has been unable to operate at the top level.

While the loss against Sweden in the last preliminary round match might have been considered an accident, the game against Belarus – their first match in Arena Zagreb – was definitely harder than Croatia expected.

Ultimately, the hosts won by a two-goal margin, 25:23, but Belarus had the chance to level the game with 20 seconds to spare, though they lost the opportunity with an attacking foul.

Croatia’s goalkeepers have been far below their best, with a meagre 22 per cent save rate over their four games. Meanwhile, the hosts’ back-court line has been feeding off Luka Cindric’s fast-paced game, but the 24-year-old centre back lacks a powerful shot from distance.

Therefore, Norway have a golden chance to dent the hosts’ chances of proceeding to the semi-finals. The winners of this encounter will certainly gain the upper hand in the run for a berth in the penultimate stage, as they will have six points with only one game remaining.

''Sweden should be the warning – Scandinavian handball, where teams punish every mistake in the best way possible. Any balls lost or shots missed, they will make a goal. We should have more patience, prevent the fast breaks and, of course, perform a solid 6-0 defence,'' said Croatia right back Luka Stepancic.

Ivan Cupic could become Croatia’s all-time top scorer at EHF EUROs with his first goal against Norway. He missed a penalty throw that could have seen him pass the record of legendary Ivano Balic in the game against Belarus.

The two sides have met seven times in the EHF EURO, with Croatia winning five games, including the bronze-medal match in Poland two years ago. They also beat Norway in the crucial Olympic Qualification Tournament in Denmark, which meant the Scandinavians missed a place at Rio 2016. Norway took revenge in the World Championship 2017 Semi-final – the most recent meeting – defeating Croatia 28:25 to book a place in their maiden final at the event.

written by Adrian Costeiu / cg