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EHF Champions League

Madsen proud to reach Cologne with his current crop

EHF / Chris O'Reilly

Aalborg’s remarkable season has been far from conventional so far, so it was only natural that a spanner be thrown in the works at the beginning of the biggest two weeks in club history.

Just before the first leg of their Danish league final last Wednesday, head coach Stefan Madsen was ruled out, having been a close contact to a COVID case, meaning he had to watch the game at home.

“One of the worst things I have experienced, really. It was surreal to be watching on television, not able to do anything and help the guys. But Arnor Atlason is an incredible guy, so the team was in the best hands,” says Madsen of his assistant, who led the team to a 37:34 victory over Bjerringbro-Silkeborg.

Madsen is out of self-isolation now and ready to take on a huge week for the club, beginning with the second leg of the league final on Tuesday, followed by their first trip to Cologne for the EHF FINAL4.

Aalborg did not take the classic route to Cologne in terms of results, with a 50:50 split of wins and losses in a group stacked with pre-season favourites. Aalborg were floating in mid-table but one particular result sparked a new belief.

“I am pretty sure that for the team, the coaches and the entire organisation, the victory in Veszprém was very important for us.

“I know Henrik Møllgaard has said we wanted to win the Champions League and get to the FINAL4 but with that win, it gave everybody the belief that it is possible. If we can win here, we can win anywhere. That game was important for all of us.”

HHD3108

Delivering before the big names arrive

From there, Aalborg gifted us two of the tightest clashes in the knockout rounds, edging out Porto on the away goals rule, before surviving a comeback attempt by Flensburg in the quarter-finals.

“What we did against Porto was very, very strong. We were not satisfied with how we played in Porto and we knew that they were able to control almost any game with their 7vs6 attack, but we managed to go through on very fine margins.

“We had a good feeling, knowing we were going to face Flensburg in the quarter-finals and that was crucial for us.”

I am so happy that we managed to go to the FINAL4 this year because everyone has been talking about us buying blah, blah, blah, you know how it is, so to achieve it with the way we have been working so far, makes me very proud to be a part of that journey.
Stefan Madsen

Those results put Aalborg in the news for their on-court efforts but they were regular headline-makers throughout the spring with the signings of Aron Palmarsson for next season and Mikkel Hansen from 2022.

That news has excited plenty of people for the future of the Danish club but Madsen admits this has added some complications as they try to focus on the here and now.

“That has been the most difficult thing this season. Both internally and externally, the focus has been on what is going to happen for the next couple of years, everybody has been looking at us and asking themselves, how has it been possible.

“I think it has been tough to manage the different ways the guys have reacted. Some players are very excited about what is happening but we are talking about individuals here and, of course, some are concerned about what part they have in this future.

“We are proud and happy about what is going to happen in the next couple of years but at the same time, you have to calm everyone down and assure them that you are here, you have your contract and we believe in you – just stay focused on what is going on right now. Really, it has been very difficult.”

“I am so happy that we managed to go to the FINAL4 this year because everyone has been talking about us buying blah, blah, blah, you know how it is, so to achieve it with the way we have been working so far, makes me very proud to be a part of that journey.”

“The guys believe in each other”

One positive aspect of the 44-year-old’s enforced stay at home last week was that he could do some extra homework on his semi-final opponents in Cologne, Paris Saint-Germain.

“The most important thing at the moment is that Nikola Karabatic is back and that is a big win for PSG, it allows them to play a different style of attack. They have two different kinds of handball when Luc Steins is playing and Karabatic is playing.

“Although Karabatic has been out for a long time, he comes with so much experience and a lot of power. He is also hungry to take the trophy, so it will be a big job for us to beat them,” says Madsen as he prepares to face the only team not to qualify from group B.

Asked if this makes any difference to him, the Aalborg coach takes a level-headed and approach.

“No matter who we were going to face in the semi-finals, it would be a tough task for us. We have felt the kind of handball Barça and Nantes play. With Barça, I would not go so far as to say they have been in another league but you have to get everything right to keep up with them.

“We played against PSG last season, so it is not completely new but it is another team and another kind of handball. Both Arnor and I have done what we can to prepare ourselves first and the players in the coming days, so we are looking forward to seeing how we can stand up against PSG.”

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Aalborg come into the EHF FINAL4 as the only debutants and outsiders for the title, a role which is usually the one you want to have at this event.

While Madsen and his coaching team will be well-prepared for what they will face in Cologne, his focus is more on getting the most from his own players.

“The most important thing for us in Cologne is our team spirit. The guys believe in each other, they have respect for each other and I hope they have a lot of respect for what we as coaches are doing.

“We have built an environment where the players feel they are always allowed to give their input and it is important for me that they are allowed to make decisions within a game.

“We have a tactical framework but they have the freedom to make decisions. I hope they feel calm about what we expect of them, I expect different things from different players, but they know they are a part of the game and a part of this success, which is a very important aspect of this weekend.” 

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