What did we learn from the EHF Finals?
51 teams started the journey but only SC Magdeburg were left standing. The new European League finished on a high on Sunday, when SCM lifted the trophy at the end of the EHF Finals in Mannheim after beating Füchse Berlin 28:25 in the final. But what were the keys to success, what made them stand out and what was the outcome of the new European League in general?
Team spirit the key for Magdeburg
After 14 long, long years, former EHF Champions League and EHF Cup winners SC Magdeburg are back on the winners’ podium and it was well-deserved. The team of coach Bennet Wiegert had twice been part of EHF Finals, even on home court in 2018, and twice they were the favourites, but then missed the final.
In Mannheim, they struggled in the semi-final again, being lucky to turn the tide against a strong Orlen Wisla Plock. The final was a masterclass, coach Wiegert called the first 30 minutes and their 15:8 lead “the perfect first half”. His side worked as a team, it was no single star, who won the trophy, but all 16 players.
At least two equal players in each position is an asset for every team, like Petterson and Hornke on the right wing or Jannick Green and Tobias Thulin in the goal. Lukas Mertens improved on the left wing, in the absence of Matthias Musche, and Christian O’Sullivan and Marko Bezjak are two completely different playmakers with great skills. And there was no question of whether they deserved to win: Magdeburg won 15 of 16 European League matches, including all knockout games in an almost perfect season.
A Scandinavian style of playing
SC Magdeburg is one of the most traditional handball clubs in Germany, their successful history is their trademark.
But they do not only talk about the old times, rather they invest in the future and coach Bennet Wiegert is the perfect example of this mix. His father Ingolf, Olympic gold medallist in 1980, had been a player and coach of SCM. Bennet followed in his footprints, steering Magdeburg to the podium of the European League with a modern handball style of play.
Looking at the players, SCM is more Scandinavian than German, they combine a strong defence with the ability of extremely quick counter-attacks. But also they count on tall shooters from the back court positions and the Scandinavian influence will rise next season, when Croat powerful Zeljko Musa will be replaced by Danish world champion and versatile line player Magnus Saugstrup.
Three strong halves were not enough for Berlin
Füchse Berlin arrived at Mannheim to continue their series of success: following wins in 2015 and 2018, 2021 should have been their next trip to the top of the podium in Europe’s second tier. On Saturday, they played at their highest level, ending the hopes and dreams of hosts Rhein-Neckar Löwen with a brilliant performance. But on Sunday, they were overrun by Magdeburg in the first 35 minutes.
But Füchse never gave up, even an 18:10 deficit did not break their morale. They almost turned the match around but finally, Magdeburg found their rhythm in the final. Berlin made their impact in the European League season, eliminating former EHF Champions League winners Montpellier with an exceptional performance in the second leg of the quarter-final. They then eliminated the hosts of the event in the semi-final but eventually lost their third final against a German team in an international competition after 2017 (Göppingen) and 2019 (Kiel).
German Bundesliga still is the strongest league in the world, when you talk about depth. All three German participants are already out of the race for the German title but they dominated the European League.
In the last 20 years, 19 German clubs, plus Szeged in 2014, won the second-tier competition. All three German clubs won their groups and avoided each other en route to Mannheim.
Perhaps you can say that the German Bundesliga have lost its superpowers as there has been no German club at the EHF FINAL4 in four of the last five years but there is no doubting how competitive the league is. When teams such as Barcelona and Veszprém can fully focus on the international competitions, the Germans are challenged every weekend and cannot save themselves for the crucial international games.
What about the hosts?
It is hard to organise a tournament on home court when you know that thousands of your fans will not be able to attend the games and shout for your team. But like Baia Mare in the EHF Finals Women, Rhein-Neckar Löwen took the responsibility and like the Romanian side, did a great job as organisers but failed to raise the trophy.
The pressure was too big, the series of defeats before the EHF Finals had taken its toll and even the brilliant idea to bring back Kim Ekdahl du Rietz did not help that much. Definitely, Löwen would have the players and strength to win the European League but when it counted in the semi-final, they were not mentally strong enough.
Plock on the right track
They arrived as the underdogs but gave two tough fights to the German favourites and although they finished fourth, ORLEN Wisla Plock were a deserving participant of the EHF Finals. With a little bit more international experience, a little bit more power and stability and a little more luck, Xavier Sabate’s men could have made it to the finals, only some individual brilliance by Magdeburg in crunch time made the difference.
Sabate has formed a strong team with a Spanish style of playing and a Polish style of fighting. Plock will definitely have the chance to impact European handball in the next years and as Sabate always mentioned that “we have ambitions and a project for the future.”
Danish stars rule again
What a season for Danish handball. First, Niklas Landin is awarded IHF Player of the Year, then the Danes defend their trophy at the World Championship in Egypt with a rejuvenated team. Then Aalborg announces their future plans with players such as Mikkel Hansen and Aron Palmarsson, then even make it to the EHF FINAL4 before those stars arrive.
Even the European League had a Danish flair. Magdeburg goalkeeper Jannick Green was the hero of the final with 17 saves and received the MVP award. Emil Jakobsen was the top scorer of the competition despite missing out on the final event with GOG.
What did we learn from the whole season?
Martin Schwalb, Xavier Sabate, Uwe Gensheimer and Bennet Wiegert all shared one opinion: With the new playing system - 16 teams in the group phase of the EHF Champions League and 24 in the group phase of the European League - the gap between first and second-tier competitions was bridged to a minimum.
Having teams such Chekhov and CSKA, Ademar Leon, Montpellier, GOG, Sporting CP, Kristianstad and Schaffhausen in the competition brought extra prestige and quality on court.
Below the 16 best teams on the continent, there is a melting pot of quality and judging by the huge media interest from all over Europe in the EHF Finals, the new format appears to have been the right move.