Who are Barça’s closest challengers?
The knockout phase starts here and now: 16 teams, eight matchups and eight tickets to the quarter-final are the ingredients for the play-offs as the business end of the EHF Champions League 2020/21 opens.
Let’s have a look at the 10 strongest teams in the competition after the group phase, taking into account injuries, current form, and chances to progress to the quarter-final.
Here is the power ranking before the play-offs:
How big an impact does qualifying for the Olympics have on the national team players’ clubs? No less than 10 Porto players were involved when Portugal booked their ticket to Tokyo earlier this month. The Portuguese side might take some additional spirit and strength from it into the play-offs.
9. Aalborg Håndbold
Aalborg, which finished fourth in group B, have matched their best result in the competition. Twice they were in the Last 16 – in 2014 and 2020 – so they might want to go one step beyond this time. With added experience and stability compared to last season, they might set the bar higher.
8. HC Meshkov Brest
While Brest are on a winning streak in their domestic league, they can look back on a decent group phase campaign in Europe’s top-level cub competition. The team from Belarus showed some quality in the first part of the season and aim to go beyond the round of the last 16 teams for the first time.
7. Lomza Vive Kielce
The Polish side’s group phase campaign was an up-and-down affair. Which face will Kielce show in the play-offs? Daniel Dujshebaev’s injury, which leaves him out for the rest of the season, is a tough blow for the 2016 champions, whose fortunes this season seem hard to predict.
6. HC Motor
Their series of one-goal wins in the group phase didn’t go unnoticed across Europe. In the end they finished fifth, and with Brest as upcoming opponents, everything seems possible and it might be the time to shine for Zaporozhye.
5. THW Kiel
Hampered by inconsistency earlier in the season, the German side have won all but one of their EHF Champions League games in 2021 – following their triumph at the VELUX EHF FINAL4 2020 in December. However, they need to show their best side again when facing MOL-Pick Szeged in the play-offs.
4. SG Flensburg-Handewitt
What a group phase Flensburg have played: they lost only one game on court, at HC Vardar 1961, and won home and away against both Kielce and PSG. If they can keep it up, nothing seems impossible for the 2014 champions, whose name belongs on the list of favourites for a trip to Cologne.
3. Paris Saint-Germain Handball
A below-par start to the group phase and again a missed chance to win the EHF FINAL4… but here is 2021 and with their blasting finish to the group phase – despite that last loss in Flensburg – and a 17-match winning streak in the domestic league, PSG are once again in roaring form this time of the year.
2. Telekom Veszprém HC
Only Barça were out of reach for the Hungarian side, who finished group B in second place, well ahead of 2020 champions Kiel. Veszprém recently defeated domestic rivals Szeged and they will be clear favourites against Vardar, though they need to be wary of their opponents strength in difficult situations.
Just before the international break, Barça took the time to win the Spanish cup, adding yet another trophy to their record. The Spanish side have been in unstoppable form in the group phase and, apart from the slip-up at the EHF FINAL4, have remained out of reach for their competitors. But as those days in late December showed, even Barça can take nothing for granted.