Kukic and Benfica aim to crown strong season in Lisbon
SL Benfica’s journey in the EHF European League 2021/22 started back in August, in qualification round 1 against Kriens Luzern from Switzerland. Fast forward nine months, and they are the proud hosts of the EHF Finals Men 2022 this weekend and have a chance to write history for the club.
Benfica meet Orlen Wisla Plock in the second semi-final on Saturday (live on EHFTV at 18:30 CEST), after titleholders SC Magdeburg and RK Nexe have contested their semi-final at 16:00 CEST.
Centre back and one of the key players for Benfica this season is Lazar Kukic, who is in his second and possibly last season with the Portuguese club since joining from BM Logroño La Rioja in the summer of 2020. HC Meshkov Brest announced last September they had signed Kukic for the 2022/23 season.
Kukic is satisfied with Benfica’s season so far. They are in the race for their first European trophy and were in the hunt for the domestic title until the last round of the championship.
“We have a great season so far, especially in the EHF European League. We deserve to be in the EHF Finals, even though we didn’t expect it at the start of the season,” said Kukic, who recalled how Benfica met last year’s EHF Finals hosts in the second qualification round.
“I remember, when the draw paired us with Rhein-Neckar Lowen, how we were thinking they were the favourites. But we showed from the very beginning that we are great team with many qualities. We were progressing throughout the season and we are happy to be part of this.”
Benfica and Nexe are only clubs at the EHF Finals Men this weekend who started their campaigns in the first qualification round. Magdeburg, as the defending champions, were seeded directly for group phase; Plock, who also played the EHF Finals last year, had to play one round of qualification.
In their 18 matches, Benfica racked up 12 wins, three draws, and three defeats. Kukic and Serbian teammate Petar Djordjic have had a substantial impact on the team’s strong results.
“Both at the club and in the national team we have a very good connection. We are good friends, too, and we transfer that to the court,” Kukic said.
Djordjic is in the hunt for the EHF European League top scorer title with 90 goals, trailing the leading scorer, Nexe’s Halil Jaganjac, by seven. And his teammate Kukic? With 60 goals scored and a high number of assists, he has been just as important.
“Of course, it is nice to be among the best scorers for the club, but it is not that important. The most important thing is that I help the team. As a centre back I have that role and I give my best that we win. The team getting better and winning, is the only thing we aspire,” Kukic said.
Benfica start their home event against Plock, the Polish runners up who are heading into their second EHF Finals.
Plock will have to rely on a strong defence, since Benfica with 473 goals is the team with the most goals scored out of the four contenders this weekend.
“We are playing against Wisla, a very strong team. They are disciplined and have a specific Spanish style of play with Xavier Sabate as a coach,” Kukic said.
“When you add their many great players, it is clear that it is not going to be easy at all. What we know is that we will prepare as well as we can and give our best on the court to win.”
Being host to the final tournament gives additional motivation, as there is no doubt Altice Arena in Lisbon will be packed with Benfica fans.
Chema Rodriguez’s team is only the second Portuguese team to qualify for the final tournament of an EHF club competition, since FC Porto made it to the former EHF Cup Finals in 2019.
“We started in the first round of qualification and it was a long journey. From that first match we showed what we are capable of,” Kukic said.
“Being part of the EHF Finals is a great feeling and it is an even better feeling we are playing at home. We believe our fans will fill the arena and support us. It means a lot to all of us at the club and is an additional motivation for all of us.”
Being part of the EHF Finals is a great feeling and it is an even better feeling we are playing at home. We believe our fans will fill the arena and support us. It means a lot to all of us at the club and is an additional motivation for all of us.
Meeting Porto in a domestic derby, Benfica had a tough and important match in the build-up to the EHF Finals. After winning the first leg 36:33, Benfica battled well but ultimately lost the return leg by four goals: 32:28.
No matter the defeat, Kukic saw that match against Porto as a good test for Plock game.
“In the domestic championship, we had a somewhat more complicated situation for the trophy. We were fighting for it as long as we had mathematical chances for the title,” Benfica’s centre back said.
“The match against Porto was extremely hard but it helped us to prepare for the EHF Finals, where we will have two matches like that in two days.”
You still have time to book your tickets to see Lazar Kukic and Benfica SL – as well as SC Magdeburg, Orlen Wisla Plock, and RK Nexe – live in action at Altice Arena in Lisbon this weekend! Order your EHF Finals Men 2022 tickets here.