Six lessons learned from the group phase
Thursday brought an end to an EHF Champions League Men group phase that has not been short of talking points as Europe’s elite battled it out for prime position on the road to the EHF FINAL4.
There have been a plethora of takeaways over the course of the 14 rounds and here are six that stood out.
Barça break the group phase
They have been rampant in the group phase. 14 victories from 14 games with a stunning average of 36 goals per game — Barça have looked a class apart since September.
But, and it is a big but, we cannot unsee what we saw in Cologne back in December. For all their brilliance over the month beforehand, Barça came asunder at the EHF FINAL4 for the second season in a row.
This begs the question of whether Barça have what it takes to get the job done when it really matters. They almost certainly do, but they need to show it or this incredible demolition of group B will be for nothing.
Flensburg focusing on Europe
Last season, it was clear to see that Flensburg’s attention was directed more on the domestic front as they languished in mid-table in their group.
But this season has been a very different story. They set the tone with impressive victories in tense games against Kielce and PSG in September and faltered just once en route to claiming top spot in group A — their first time winning a group since the previous group A/B format was introduced in 2015.
Maik Machulla’s men have dealt with injury worries brilliantly and made the most of the incredible form of the likes of Hampus Wanne, Benjamin Buric and Jim Gottfridsson.
Zappers make their mark
It has been a rapid rise for HC Motor this past year. Last season they could not buy a win, but it is a very different story this time around as they recorded a six-match winning streak towards the end of 2020.
Coach Gintaras Savukynas deserves a huge amount of credit for what he has done with the Zaporozhye-based club, bringing out the best of mercurial back-court duo Barys Pukhouski and Aidenas Malasinskas, combined with a breakout line player Viachaslau Bokhan — the competition’s third highest scorer with 67 goals.
A late lull saw Motor drop to fifth place in group B but they will fancy their chances against the ever-improving Meshkov Brest in the play-offs.
Dujshebaev doing the business
The group phase’s top scorer is Alex Dujshebaev, who fired in a brilliant 80 goals so far this season — eight more than second-placed Mikkel Hansen.
But that is not all he is doing. The timing of the Spaniard’s goals are almost more important, as he is often the man to pick up the slack when Kielce are in trouble or put his body on the line to win a penalty.
Far from the stereotype of a right back, Dujshebaev is a playmaker at heart and regularly dishes the most assists per game, making him a true all-rounder in attack.
PSG got themselves into a sticky situation early in the season, enduring defeats in three of their first four matches and losing their leader Nikola Karabatic to a knee injury.
The search was on for a replacement, a man everyone believed should be a speedy playmaker, and Paris agreed, bringing in Luc Steins on loan from Toulouse.
Steins has injected some badly needed speed into the attack, which, combined with his passing ability, has given the likes of Hansen and Nedim Remili plenty to play with. The Dutch speedster has also come up with 22 goals of his own and countless penalties won in the five European games he has played, four of which PSG earned victories in as they stormed up the group to finish in second place.
The exciting thing about the Last 16 line-up is that we appear to have 12 teams who look genuinely capable of beating anyone else on their day and this makes the four ties between the sides placed third and sixth truly mouth-watering.
For example, having been in the top two of group A right until the final round, Kielce dropping down to third place means they suddenly face a dangerous task against an unpredictable Nantes side.
Elsewhere, Kiel’s late flourish to finish third in group B has been rewarded with an opponent nobody would have picked to sit in the bottom half: MOL-Pick Szeged. The Hungarian side were decimated by Covid-related issues early in the season, but are more than a match for anybody when fully fit and will be giving the defending champions some sleepless nights.