Six things to watch as group phase nears end
The EHF Champions League Women 2022/23 returns this weekend for the first of the two remaining rounds in what has already been an amazing run – a 12-week bonanza of excellent handball, that has delivered 57.3 goals scored on average per match.
Still, there are some questions to be answered and pivotal matches to be played in the last two rounds of the group phase, which will deliver the play-off and quarter-final picture, with teams learning what they need to do to earn that coveted EHF FINAL4 berth.
Two spots taken, two spots open for direct quarter-final entry
It is a privilege of the top two teams in both groups to skip the play-offs and advance to the quarter-finals directly. While CSM Bucuresti and Vipers Kristiansand sealed their places from group A, the race in group B is still open: Metz Handball lead with 21 points, but could at least mathematically still be overtaken by two of their three followers on 18 points: Györi Audi ETO KC, Team Esbjerg and CS Rapid Bucuresti.
In the upcoming round 13, Rapid visit Metz on Saturday at 18:00 CET, while Esbjerg and Györ are set to face off in the concluding round 14. Esbjerg hold the tie-breaker against Rapid (a 34:32 loss and a 35:30 win), while the Romanian champions are ahead of Györ (a 32:30 loss and a 30:27 win)
Who is going to join the play-offs from group A?
The play-off battle is still very tight in group A, while there is only one place left in group B, where Turkish champions Kastamonu and Norwegian team Storhamar will be battling for the last play-off place. Storhamar need a single point to go through if Kastamonu win their last two matches against Györ and Buducnost, a hefty challenge for a side that has won only once in 26 games in the European premium competition.
In group A, however, things look truly exciting. Most are the only eliminated side, as four teams battle for the last three remaining places. Third-place Odense are virtually through, with a four-point advantage over seventh-place Krim and a game against Most following. Between FTC in fourth and Krim are separated by only a point, so the Hungarian side, Brest Bretagne Handball (11 points), SG BBM Bietigheim and Krim Mercator Ljubljana (both on 10 points) will be giving it their all. Krim have the toughest schedule, though, finishing off the group phase with games against CSM Bucuresti and Vipers Kristiansand.
Who is going to win group A?
In the past years, Györ have dominated their group, earning a berth for the quarter-finals usually without dropping a game, but things have changed this season. In group B, Metz Handball need only two points to secure the first place in the group, as they face Rapid and Storhamar. But in group A, things are more complicated than that, with Vipers Kristiansand still being able to dethrone CSM Bucuresti, after the two sides confirmed their quarter-final berths in the previous round.
The first place in the group can, theoretically, be an advantage, as the winners of Group A will face either the fourth place in Group B or the fifth place in Group A in the quarter-finals, with the second place meeting the winner of the play-offs tie between the third place in Group B and the sixth place in Group A. Right now, CSM hold a two-point advantage over Vipers, but the reigning champions hold the tiebreaker between the two teams in case of a tie in points, having won their home game by six goals (35:29) before losing the away match by three (27:24).
A close race for the top goal scorer title
After 12 rounds, CSM left back Cristina Neagu and Esbjerg left back Henny Reistad are the joint top scorers with 90 goals each. Neagu is eyeing a record-breaking fourth top goal scorer trophy, as she is now tied with Natalia Morskova and Nataliya Derepasko as the only players having won this award three times.
Czech back Marketa Jerabkova, the MVP of the EHF FINAL4 last season, is still in contention, having scored 80 goals so far for Vipers Kristiansand, while FTC’s Katrin Klujber (78) and Krim’s Daria Dmitrieva (72) are the only other players to have scored at least 70 goals this season. Eight of the top 10 scorers in the competition are backs, while the other two, Krim’s Jovanka Radicevic and Storhamar’s Anniken Obaidli, are featuring on the two wings.
Goalkeepers to watch in the final matches of the group phase
Eight goalkeepers have made over 100 saves so far this season, but one shot stopper stands out: Buducnost’s French goalkeeper Armelle Attingré has 146 saves – 22 more than a pair of Norwegian goalkeepers: CSM’s Marie Davidsen and Vipers’ Katrine Lunde, who both are on 124.
In terms of efficiency, another Norwegian shot stopper: Györ’s Silje Solberg is leading the way with 39.84%, followed by Davidsen (37.24%) and Solberg’s teammate Sandra Toft (35.89%) among goalkeepers with at least 75 saves. There is no surprise that teams that have a good percentage in the goalkeepers’ department are more inclined to challenge for the top places in the groups, as underlined by CSM, Vipers or Györ this season.
Can Györ beat the trend?
The last time Györ lost least three games in one season – in 2015/16 – they ended up as runners-up to champions CSM Bucuresti following a dramatic shootout. The season before, they also lost three games and were eliminated in the quarter-finals by Vardar.
The Hungarian powerhouse usually is a team that is a dominant force on the court, losing only seven games between 2016 and 2022, an average of just over one loss per season. This time, they already have three – one against Rapid and two against Metz.
Every time Györ lost more than two matches in a season, they failed to secure the trophy. Will the trend be reversed this time around? An indicator might be their group match against last season’s EHF FINAL4 contenders Esbjerg – match potentially decisive for a direct quarter-final berth.
photo CSM (c) 2023 Razvan Pasarica/SPORT PICTURES