Key stars critical as Slovenia aim to continue climbing
“I am glad that Barbara Lazovic and Elizabeth Omoregie are returning to the national team. Captain Ana Gros is also in extremely good shape. We are all looking forward to the preparations, but at the same time we hope that the European Championship will go according to plan.”
These are the simple words of Slovenia coach Uros Bregar when naming his 20-player squad for the EHF EURO 2020 in mid-November – simple yet highlighting all the key facts of note regarding his side.
Slovenia are often headlined by captain and lethal back-court shooter Ana Gros. In 2020, we can look forward to seeing Gros alongside the equally notable talent of Tjasa Stanko, and as Bregar highlighted, the addition of two key players who could lift the team to a new level after their 13th-place ranking at the EHF EURO 2018.
Driving force: Ana Gros and Tjasa Stanko
Ana Gros has deservedly garnered much of the attention surrounding the Slovenia women’s team for many years, and as the leading scorer of the DELO EHF Champions League season so far, it is clear the Brest Bretagne right back remains in excellent shape as the EHF EURO approaches.
But Gros is not alone in being a world-class player with the potential to decide a match in favour of her side when at her best.
Tjasa Stanko, just turned 23 at the start of November, has continued proving why she has been seen as a great talent in not only Slovenian but international handball over recent years. At the Women’s World Championship 2019 in Japan, Stanko was Slovenia’s top scorer and ranked third overall in the competition, despite playing only seven matches in comparison with the leader’s (Lois Abbingh) 10 games. Stanko also had the most assists and steals for Slovenia.
While Stanko contributed a huge 62 goals for Slovenia in Japan, Gros tallied 42. The difference could be due to the tendency for Slovenia’s opponents to focus their defence on Gros, but when that is the case, Stanko is ready to step up to the role of leader. Given Stanko’s development and the new names joining the start list, the tactic of defensive focus on Gros is not likely to reap the rewards it once did.
Under the spotlight: Elizabeth Omorogie’s big debut
Slovenia will finally be able to see a long-awaited debut at the EHF EURO 2020.
It was in 2014 that a 17-year-old Nigerian-Bulgarian centre back named Elizabeth Omoregie arrived at Krim. Former Slovenia and Krim coach Marta Bon commented that the first time she saw Omoregie it was obvious that an exceptional talent had been uncovered, while coach Bregar said: “Signing Omoregie has become maybe the best move so far in the history of the club.”
Omoregie was a stand-out player for Bulgaria for some years, starring as a high scorer in the early stages of qualification for EHF EUROs, before the decision that she would take Slovenian citizenship. The process has taken some years, but the time has finally arrived for Omoregie to don the Slovenia jersey.
With the addition of Omoregie, Slovenia’s back court becomes a more formidable one – but there is also another key weapon re-joining: right back Barbara Lazovic, who plays alongside Omoregie at CSM Bucuresti. Lazovic’s presence will likely mean less pressure on Gros. While Gros has certainly proven she can handle the pressure, the option will of course contribute to less fatigue and an improved level of depth in the squad.
It is possible that Slovenia are about to become much more of a contender.
Big question: What about defence?
It is clear Slovenia have an attacking line-up to envy, but what about the other end of the court?
In a team that is young on average, where the obvious goal has been to keep the squad together for many years and develop as far as possible as a cohort, this element of the game is also being developed. The likes of 22-year-old Nina Zabjek have been tasked with playing a key role in defence, where Stanko is also important. At the World Championship one year ago, Stanko made the most steals for Slovenia, while Teja Ferfolja counted the most blocked shots.
In goal is another young player to watch in this side, 22-year-old Maja Vojnovic. Vojnovic may not always be the starter but has put on some impressive performances over recent years. At Japan 2019, she recorded an average save rate of 32 per cent across all of Slovenia’s games – the highest of the three keepers in the side. Expect to see her increasingly more between Slovenia’s posts and likely at the EHF EURO 2020.
Fun fact: A habit of preliminary round shocks
Slovenia have performed exceptionally well in the early stages of all major international championships in recent years. At the World Championship 2017, won by France, they defeated France in their round 1 game – the only team at that event to beat the side that would become world champions. Gros led with nine goals in that encounter.
At the EHF EURO 2018, they did not enjoy a strong starting victory, but Slovenia pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the preliminary round when they beat Olympic champions Russia 29:27 in round 3. Gros contributed 12 goals to that win.
At the World Championship 2019, Slovenia took a commanding victory, 32:26, over Netherlands – again, the team that would go on to lift the trophy – to open their campaign. Stanko tallied 12 goals in that match.
Those events all came following a lengthy absence from the top international championships. Slovenia’s return, after last contesting the final EURO tournament in 2010 and the World Championship even longer ago, in 2005, came in 2016. In that preliminary round campaign, Slovenia also took a surprise win, defeating 2014 bronze medallists Sweden in Stockholm and ultimately contributing to the host’s early elimination.
These results show that Slovenia are capable of beating any team before the fatigue of tournament handball sets in, which in turn will be less of a factor with Omoregie and Lazovic in the line-up. Perhaps 2020 will be the year Slovenia’s strong start becomes a strong campaign.
EHF EURO participations (including 2020): 7