Record winners look to bounce back after 2017 defeat
The second semi-final at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 pitches the holders of the most EHF Champions League titles, Barça Lassa, against the 2017 champions HC Vardar, the only team to make it to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 for the third consecutive season.
Barça are probably starting as the favourites, but previous events in Cologne have proved that favourites do not always win.
- Barça Lassa can become the first team to win the trophy for a third time in Cologne
- Barça captain Victor Tomas and Vardar wing Ivan Cupic can both win the title for a third time in Cologne
- Barça line player Ludovic Fabregas can win the title for a second straight year, after his triumph with Montpellier in 2018
- Vardar right back Dainis Kristopans (80 goals) is chasing Kielce’s Alex Dujshebaev (88) for the season’s top scorer award
Barça Lassa (ESP) vs HC Vardar (MKD)
Saturday 1 June, 18:00hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Barça Lassa know now what can happen to the so-called favourites at the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
In 2013 they lost the final against Hamburg after extra time. In 2014 they lost the semi-final against Flensburg following a penalty shootout, and in 2017 they lost the semi-final against Vardar 25:26 after a buzzer-beater from Luka Cindric.
It is Barça’s seventh appearance at the VELUX EHF FINAL4, making them the holders of the record for the most participations. They have won the trophy twice in the LANXESS arena, against Ciudad Real in 2010 and against Veszprém in 2015.
Head coach Xavi Pascual’s team are playing an incredibly strong international season. After the opening defeat against Rhein-Neckar Löwen they won nine group matches in a row, including twice against upcoming semi-final opponents Vardar (30:26 and 34:26). They suffered a second defeat – against Veszprém – but had already been confirmed as the winners of Group A.
In the quarter-finals Barça eased past last year’s finalists Nantes (32:25, 29:26). Even the injury to Danish new arrival and top scorer at that time, Casper Mortensen, did not stop the Barça express.
Like Mortensen, two more new arrivals have improved the squad: goalkeeper Kevin Møller, who replaced Borko Ristosvki, and line player Ludovic Fabregas, successor to Viran Morros.
Fabregas, world champion with France in 2017, is the only player this year who can win back-to-back titles, after his triumph with Montpellier in 2018. He would match the achievement of semi-final opponent Ivan Cupic, who won with Kielce in 2016 and with Vardar in 2017.
After many big names, including Arpad Sterbik, Joan Canellas, Luka Cindric, Jorge Maqueda and coach Raul Gonzalez, left the club last season, only a few expected Vardar to complete the road to Cologne once again – but they have defied the odds under new coach Roberto Parrondo.
Vardar were third in Group A and beat Zagreb twice in the Last 16 before defeating Szeged by an impressive 31:23 on home court. Vardar survived some scary moments and a nine-goal deficit in the return leg to qualify for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 again.
Vardar have only beaten Barça twice in 15 previous meetings, but Vardar captain Stojanche Stoilov is still optimistic.
“It does not make too much difference as we know them as much as they know us. We lost twice against them in the group phase but in Cologne it is different,” he said.
Barça’s stats might be impressive, but the Spanish side has not made it onto the winners’ podium since 2015. The match against Vardar will be their 15th semi-final in their 22nd EHF Champions League season. They have reached the final 11 times (including four times in Cologne), and have won the trophy eight times.
With the 1991 European Cup of Champions added into the mix, Barça will be fighting for their 10th trophy.
“All four teams which have made it to Cologne are great squads and it will be a very interesting EHF FINAL4 this year. Vardar are extremely dangerous and their current situation makes them even more dangerous as it will be all about pride for them,” warned Barça team captain Victor Tomas.
His coach Xavi Pascual can win his third Champions League trophy in Cologne, which would put him level with Alfred Gislason, who won twice with Kiel and once with Magdeburg.
Handball is Barça’s last hope to win a Champions League trophy this year, after their basketball and football teams failed to make it to their respective finals.
TEXT: Björn Pazen/jh