Winds of change for reigning champions
After 12 seasons that saw 61 trophies for Barça, Xavi Pascual’s tenure as coach of the Spanish powerhouse ended on a high last June, as the club won their ninth EHF Champions League Men title.
It was a superb season for the Spanish giants, who swept their opponents in an unprecedented 20-game unbeaten run — one that will be difficult to repeat, especially in the new circumstances.
The 2021/22 season will be full of new faces at the reigning champions, as Antonio Carlos Ortega replaced Pascual on Barça’s bench, while crucial players like Raul Entrerrios and Aron Palmarsson will not be part of the roster. Barça’s talisman and captain, Entrerrios, retired after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, while Palmarsson moved to Aalborg Håndbold. Another six players left the Spanish powerhouse this summer.
- coach Xavi Pascual left after 12 years and 61 trophies, and was replaced by Antonio Carlos Ortega
- Barça have qualified for the EHF FINAL4 in eight of the last 11 seasons and hold the record for most participations on the final weekend
- the Spanish powerhouse lost eight players over the summer, including talisman Raul Entrerrios, who retired after the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
- players from three continents and nine different countries are represented in the roster for this season
- if they clinch the trophy for the second year in a row, Barça will be the only side in history to win the premium European competition 10 times
- the last team to retain their title in the EHF Champions League Men was Ciudad Real in 2009
Most important question: Will Ortega follow in Pascual’s footsteps?
A former player for Barça, between 1994 and 2005, and winner of the EHF Champions League Men six times, including five titles in a row between 1996 and 2000 — Ortega knows the Barça DNA, the requirements needed, and the pressure exerted by everybody on the club. His past will serve as a springboard at the start of his coaching career at the Spanish powerhouse, but ultimately the results will be the most important.
Following in the footsteps of an unbeaten team that won all the games on the way to the trophy will be difficult and repeating the achievement nearly impossible. But Ortega will ultimately be judged on his merits and how Barça play this season. The loss of eight players will be a blow, especially experienced stalwarts like Palmarsson, Entrerrios and Jure Dolenec, but Ortega will have a talented team at his disposal.
With Gonzalo Perez de Vargas, the MVP of the EHF FINAL4 2021 and the new captain of the club; young but experienced players like Blaz Janc, Ludovic Fabregas and Dika Mem; and Luka Cindric to orchestrate the attacks, Barça certainly look like a favourite and a team to beat this season. But Ortega did not finish higher than fourth in the Bundesliga with his former team, TSV Hannover-Burgdorf, so this will surely be a testing season for the new coach.
Barça usually scored more than 33 goals per game in the last seasons of the EHF Champions League Men, while Hannover averaged roughly 27 goals scored per match in the Bundesliga. Was it about Ortega and his tactics or about the players he had at his disposal? This will also be a question to be answered in the first games.
Under the spotlight: Dika Mem
The French right back, now 23, is reaching the prime of his career — but he has already been amazing both for Barça and for the French men’s national team. Mem will be back after the best season in his career, having been awarded the All-Star right back title in the EHF Champions League Men 2020/21 and won the gold medal with France at Tokyo 2020.
Mem was only two goals short of last season’s top goal scorer title, won by Valero Rivera, after hitting 93 goals. He is slowly becoming the force everyone expected him to be when Barça signed him from Tremblay-en-France in 2016 when he was only 18.
Paired with fellow French right back Melvyn Richardson this season, Mem will be decisive for Barça once again this season, but the question is how he will adapt to Ortega’s new system.
How they rate themselves
As reigning champions. However, this could be a transitional season for the Spanish powerhouse and Antonio Carlos Ortega knows this.
“We have been getting to know each other better. We are working more on defence and not so much on attack. We will be keeping things which worked well last season, but every coach likes to imprint his ideas on the team,” said Ortega, after a training camp in mid-August.
Did you know?
Since the current EHF FINAL4 format was introduced in the 2009/10 season, Barça have progressed to Cologne eight times and won the trophy on three of those occasions. Therefore, the Spanish powerhouse have qualified among the top four teams in in 72.7% of the last 11 seasons, and they are the only team in Europe to hit this milestone.
What the numbers say
Nine – no other team has won more EHF Champions League Men titles than Barça. Their first came in 1996 and the last was clinched in June. The other 15 teams that will start this edition of the premium European competition combine for 12 titles, with THW Kiel having taken four; HC PPD Zagreb, Montpellier HB and Vardar two each; and SG Flensburg Handewitt and Lomza Vive Kielce one apiece.
Arrivals and departures
Newcomers: Leonel Maciel (Liberbank Cuenca), Angel Fernandez Perez (Lomza Vive Kielce), Ali Zein (Sharjah), Melvyn Richardson (Montpellier HB), Antonio Carlos Ortega (coach, from TSV Hannover Burgdorf)
Left the club: Kevin Møller (SG Flensburg-Handewitt), Aron Palmarsson (Aalborg Håndbold), Raul Entrerrios (retired), Casper Ulrich Mortensen (HSV Hamburg), Jure Dolenec (Limoges Handball), Alex Pascual Garcia (Dinamo Bucuresti), Cedric Sorhaindo (Dinamo Bucuresti), Mamadou Diocou (Rhein-Neckar Lowen), Xavi Pascual Garcia (coach, to Dinamo Bucuresti)
VELUX EHF Champions League records:
Participations (including 2020/21 season): 24
Winners (9): 1995/96, 1996/97, 1997/98, 1998/99, 1999/00, 2004/05, 2010/11, 2014/15, 2020/21
Final (4): 2000/01, 2009/10, 2012/13, 2019/20
Semi-final (4): 2007/08, 2013/14, 2016/17, 2018/19
Quarter-final (4): 2005/06, 2006/07, 2011/12, 2015/16
Last 16 (2): 2003/04, 2017/18
Main round (1): 2008/09
Other EC records:
Cup Winners’ Cup:
Winners: 1993/94, 1994/95
European Champions Cup:
Spanish league: 28 titles (1969, 1973, 1980, 1982, 1986, 1988-92, 1996-2000, 2003, 2006, 2011-21)
Spanish Cup: 25 titles (1969, 1972, 1973, 1983–85, 1988, 1990, 1993–94, 1997–98, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2009–10, 2014–21
League Cup: 16 titles (1995–96, 2000–02, 2010, 2012–21)