Gonzalez: “We are better now than six months ago”
Raul Gonzalez is feeling familiar at the EHF FINAL4. The Spanish coach was assistant to Talant Dujshebaev at Ciudad Real in 2010 and 2011 and led Vardar to the title in 2017 as head coach.
Gonzalez appeared at his first EHF FINAL4 with PSG last December, for the rescheduled 2020 edition.
And he returns to Cologne with the French powerhouse again this weekend, when PSG finally hope to lift the trophy in their fifth visit in total to LANXESS arena.
“I am still as excited. We often talk about how players are happy to play such an event, but for a coach, the EHF FINAL4 remains one of the highlights in your career,” the 51-year-old Gonzalez said.
The road to Cologne has been a rocky one for Paris this season. They lost three of their first four matches in the group phase – and lost three times against German opponents in total: twice in the group phase to SG Flensburg-Handewitt and the first leg of the quarter-final against THW Kiel.
But PSG pulled themselves together at the right moment, beating the titleholders by six goals in the return leg to grab their EHF FINAL4 ticket.
“This was one of those very good games, where the team delivered what it is capable of. When you are a coach, you have to appreciate those moments when the hard work pays off,” Gonzalez said.
It changes a lot of things for us. Nikola (Karabatic) is able to do everything on the court and he is very enthusiastic about being back. At the end of a very long season, to have such a player back, to see him running after every ball as if he has not played handball for three years, it gives the whole team a boost.
The 34:28 win over Kiel opened the door to yet another EHF FINAL4 participation for PSG, who reached the final once in their four previous visits – in 2017, when Vardar – with Gonzalez at the helm – took the title.
Last December, Barça were too strong in the semi-final.
“We have to forget about December, not think about it,” Gonzalez said. “We learnt the lessons we had to learn, things we did well and bad, but this weekend will be completely different.”
With several new faces in the team at the start of the season, Gonzalez is convinced that PSG have developed since that defeat in December.
“A lot of the players were not with us last season, so it takes time for things to settle. I am sure we are better now than six months ago, because we have gathered more experience.”
And talking about experience, Gonzalez has the pleasure of welcoming Nikola Karabatic back to his team.
Karabatic, who turned 37 in April, returned in May after recovering from the knee injury that had kept him away from the courts since October.
“It changes a lot of things for us. Nikola is able to do everything on the court and he is very enthusiastic about being back,” Gonzalez said.
“At the end of a very long season, to have such a player back, to see him running after every ball as if he has not played handball for three years, it gives the whole team a boost.”
It will be a welcome boost in the semi-final against unheralded Aalborg Håndbold. The Danish side might be playing at the EHF FINAL4 for the first time, but Gonzalez knows that Cologne has been the home to many surprises through the years.
“I respect this team a lot, they beat Flensburg who beat us twice this season,” Gonzalez said. “We know that this weekend we will be playing the final on Saturday. We can’t think about anything but Aalborg right now.”