18 teams set to battle for last nine tickets to Japan
Nine places for European teams at the Women’s World Championship 2019 are still up for the grabs. The tickets will go to the teams which better their opponents in the crunch play-off round.
Title holders France and the three best-placed teams at the EHF EURO 2018 – Russia, Netherlands and Romania – have already qualified for the tournament, which will take place in Japan between 30 November and 15 December.
There are overwhelming favourites in some of the two-leg play-off ties, but other double-headers look more balanced with small margins likely deciding the winners.
All matches can be followed through the EHF live ticker.
PLAY-OFF, FIRST LEG
Belarus vs Norway
Friday, 31 May, 19:15 hrs local time
Playing the EHF EURO Final every time between 2002 and 2016, Norway have not featured in a play-off game for a long time, but the Nordic side is paying their dues after an underwhelming EHF EURO 2018, where they only finished fifth. Welcoming Nora Mørk back into the squad after a lengthy injury lay-off is a plus for the Norwegian side, as coach Thorir Hergeirsson looks set to inspire his team for two easy wins. There are also new faces in the Norwegian line-up, including backs Ingvild Bakkerud and Moa Hogdahl, but there are still stalwarts like Stine Oftedal, Camilla Herrem or Heidi Løke who will carry the load when needed.
Czech Republic vs Montenegro
Friday, 31 May, 20:10 hrs local time
There is a long-term plan for the Montenegrin women’s national team, with the aim of winning a medal at the Olympic Games next summer. Therefore, the Montenegrin Federation decided to extend Per Johansson’s contract, as he was pinpointed as the right man for the job after a sub-par performance at the EHF EURO 2018, when Montenegro finished only on the ninth place. Therefore, it was no surprise that players like Majda Mehmedovic and Jovanka Radicevic joined Buducnost for next season and this surely means that the Montenegrin team is fully focused to fulfil their objective. Until then, the double-header against the Czech Republic looks crucial: the Czech side finished eighth at the previous edition of the World Championship and is a plucky team that can exert pressure on any opponent. However, having the second leg at home, in the raucous Moraca Arena, helps the Montenegrin cause.
Serbia vs Poland
Friday, 31 May, 20:15 hrs local time
This is one of the most balanced double-headers of the play-off round, as both teams have vast experience in the past final tournaments. Yet Ljubomir Obradovic’s side will have their work cut out, as experienced players are out of the roster due to injuries. CSM Bucuresti duo Andrea Lekic and Dragana Cvijic is out, as is goalkeeper Katarina Tomasevic, who tore her knee ligaments at the EHF EURO and the two games come too early for her. An experienced Polish side will look for their fourth World Championship berth in a row, relying once again of stalwarts like Kinga Achruk, Weronika Glawik or Karolina Kudlacz-Gloc to proceed to the final tournament in Japan. Having the second leg played in Poland is an advantage for Leszek Krowicki’s side, as the Polish coach already highlighted the importance of playing in front of their own fans for the right to be in Japan.
Spain vs Iceland
Friday, 31 May, 21:00 hrs
After winning four medals, but never gold, at the EHF EURO, World Championship and Olympic Games between 2011 and 2014, Spain have been in a constant rebuilding process, with coaching and player changes. This has translated into a step back, but Spain have qualified for the past 13 final tournaments of EHF EURO and World Championship. They are still the favourites to extend this streak, yet Iceland can prove to be an inconvenient opponent at times. After their maiden presence at the World Championships in 2011 and two EHF EURO showings in 2010 and 2012, Iceland have stagnated, yet their Nordic style and grit can never be underestimated. A friendly game against the Norwegian B team has been lost by Iceland five days before the first leg with Spain, 26:24, therefore Carlos Viver’s side is still the team to beat in this double-header.
Denmark vs Switzerland
Saturday, 1 June, 16:10 hrs local time
The SWISs side steamrolled their way into the play-offs by comfortably winning a group where they faced Lithuania, Faroe Islands and Finland, but their work will be cut out against Denmark. The Danes never finished lower than sixth in the previous five editions of the World Championship and only missed the cut once in the past 30 years. With established players like Sandra Toft, Stine Jørgensen, Louise Burgaard, Anne Mette Hansen or Trine Ostergaard in the roster, the Danish are massive favourites and anything but their qualification would be a huge surprise, also because the SWISs side has never earned a berth at the EHF EURO or World Championship so far.
Sweden vs Slovakia
Saturday, 1 June, 17:00 hrs local time
Slovakia have been failing to qualify for the World Championship since 1995 and their prospects still are grey, after drawing Sweden for the play-offs. The Nordic side has both the experience and the depth to be the favourites, but missing playmaker Isabelle Gulldén, who is pregnant, could hurt them in crunch moments. However, the Swedish side is well-balanced on every position, while coach Henrik Signell also called up interesting prospects like left wing Emma Rask, playmaker Emma Lindqvist or playmaker Melissa Petren. Anything than a World Championship berth would be a disaster for the Nordic side.
Austria vs Hungary
Sunday, 2 June, 18:00 hrs local time
“A handball classic,” as the Austrian Handball Federation dubbed the game, will only have one winner as the two sides have 56 mutual games between them in the past 57 years. The Hungarian side have 43 wins, opposed to Austria’s 11, and they also hold the advantage in this tie, thanks to their experience. Hungary looked like a new team under Kim Rasmussen’s leadership, especially with some young sharpshooters in the team like FTC’s Katrin Klujber and Noemi Hafra, who impressed in the Women’s EHF Champions League 2018/19 season. There are also experienced players in the fold, like Aniko Kovacsics, Zsuzsanna Tomori or Eva Kiss, as Hungary look set to qualify for their 13th World Championship in the past 26 years.
North Macedonia vs Slovenia
Sunday, 2 June, 20:30 hrs local time
The Slovenian side is on a rising trend thanks to an impressive back line, which boasts Ana Gros, Elizabeth Omoregie and Tjasa Stanko. Already playing in the past three final tournaments – two EHF EURO events and a World Championship – the Slovenian side has the experience to be the favourites to earn their tickets to Japan. The Macedonian national team have not qualified for the World Championships since 2007 and look to be the underdog once again, especially with the second leg being played in Slovenia.
Croatia vs Germany
Sunday, 2 June, 16:00 hrs local time
A young and hungry German side was one of the teams to watch in the EHF EURO, but can coach Henk Groener help the team emulate the antics from December right now? The German side had its ups and downs in the past year, including in the final tournament in France in 2018, but will have to be consistent if they were to earn their eighth consecutive World Championship berth. Croatia also qualified for the EHF EURO last year, yet they failed to win a game and still look like a work in progress. As Germany look more secure and have more experience in their ranks, is Groener’s side the team to beat in this double-header? It may be very well so, despite Croatia being able to surprise on any given day.
TEXT: Adrian Costeiu / ew