Slovenia keep the gate to semi-finals open

GROUP II REVIEW: Goalkeeper Urh Kastelic, making his EHF EURO debut, and a strong team performance in attack secure a dominant 31:26 win against Spain

Urh Kastelic proved to be a great joker in the game vs Spain. The newly added goalkeeper could hardly wish a more successful EHF EURO debut. Photo: Nebojsa Tejic

For the first time in their seventh attempt, Slovenia beat Spain at an EHF EURO final tournament – and thus, not only took revenge for their defeat in the World Championship 2013 Semi-final, but can still hope for a ticket to the next stage in Croatia. Thanks to their 31:26 (13:12) victory against Spain, Slovenia have three points in their account, one less than the EHF EURO 2016 runners-up, who are equal with their next opponent, Germany.

"This is what happens when we get three days off. We played very well, we had great defence and great offence. Spain had some issues and we knew how to use them," Slovenian left back Borut Mackovsek said.

The match winners for the Slovenians, who have their last main round match against Czech Republic on Wednesday, were goalkeeper Urh Katelic (awarded best player of the match on his EHF EURO debut) and Gasper Marguc, the top scorer with five goals. The Spaniards were too weak at both ends of the court to make a step towards the semi-finals, as their defence in particular displayed a lot of cracks.

After a thrilling and intense first half with many ups and downs on both sides, Slovenia were ahead 13:12 – mainly courtesy of Kastelic, who saved eight Spanish shots in the first 30 minutes and finished the game with a tally of 12. 

Aside from Kastelic, the Slovenian fans provided great support for coach Veselin Vujovic's team, who forged ahead to their first three-goal advantage at 5:2 in minute nine. Consequently, Spain coach Jordi Ribera was forced to take an early time-out – a real wake-up call for his side.

It was mainly the wings Valero Rivera and Ferran Sole that were key in turning the tide. After the first half, Spain had only scored twice from the back court (both goals by Raul Entrerrios) – the other 10 goals resulted from two penalties, five wing shots, one from the line and two strikes into the empty goal from defence specialists Viran Morros and Gedeon Guardiola.

Thanks to a 6:1 run, the EHF EURO 2016 silver medallists pulled ahead to 8:6, and the first time-out from Vujovic followed. Despite four two-minute suspensions in the first 30 minutes, Slovenia came back to take a close 13:12 lead to the locker rooms after an impressive double strike from Borut Mackovsek.

"We played well in the first half, but in the second half we started strong. Lots of things just fell in their place at once, we had some great attacks, we were lucky, we have a strong heart. All of this just needed to happen at the same time to win against Spain, this was not an easy victory," Slovenian centre back Miha Zarabec commented.

His side entered the second half exactly in the same express mode as they played before the break. The Spaniards changed their goalkeeper from Gonzalo Perez de Vargas to Rodrigo Corrales, but their defence was far below par. Slovenia were scoring from all positions, Mackovsek was on a high, line player Blaz Blagotinsek (both four goals total) was powerful against the physically strong Spanish defenders – and at the other end, Kastelic still stood like a wall.

Even an early time-out for coach Ribera at the score of 15:18 (minute 35) did not stop the initial Spanish downswing. In contrast: Slovenia took full control, creating their first five-goal lead at 22:17 and shocking the 2013 world champions with the intermediate result of 25:19, 14 minutes before the end.

Although Morros was sent to the tribune after three suspensions and a red card, the Spaniards reduced the gap to 26:30. But at the end, Slovenia's other goalkeeper, Matevz Skok, saved a penalty shot from Sole, while Matic Verdinek sealed the deal with the last goal of the match.

"They played tough in defence what allowed them many easy goals in transition. Also they played like home gome, thanks to their fans. Start of second half was great to them what resulted in greater difference in goals for them and we couldn't come back in game," Spanish goalkeeper Gonzalo Perez de Vargas said.

written by Björn Pazen / br