Nantes ready to surprise the favourites again
When HBC Nantes last played in the EHF Champions League Men, they lost to Barça and Paris Saint-Germain HB at the EHF FINAL4 Men 2021. But being among the last four in Europe's biggest club competition was already an achievement for Nantes, as this was their second qualification for the EHF FINAL4, after 2018.
In a group featuring the last two EHF Champions League winners, and with a team that has been rejuvenated a lot since 2021, Nantes are aiming one of the positive surprise stories of the season again.
- this is Nantes' fifth season in the EHF Champions League, and their first season dates back to 2016/17
- the French side reached the EHF FINAL4 twice, in 2018 and 2021, and even made the final in 2018
- last season, they reached the EHF European League Men quarter-finals, where they lost to SC Magdeburg
- the squad has undergone some important changes this summer, with Emil Nielsen, Dragan Pechmalbec and David Balaguer leaving the club and Kiril Lazarov retiring
- summer signings include goalkeepers Ivan Pesic and Viktor Hallgrímsson, as well as right back Jorge Maqueda
Most important question: can we rank Nantes among the EHF Champions League favourites?
With two EHF FINAL4 participations in the last five seasons, it would be easy to rank HBC Nantes among the favourites of the competition. Looking at the numbers, teams like Telekom Veszprém HC, THW Kiel and Lomza Industria Kielce have not been particularly successful lately. However, the reality is a little more complicated than that.
Club president Gael Pelletier is trying to keep a low profile before the season starts. Pelletier said: "Group B is very competitive. We have the guarantee of welcoming very good teams to our H Arena. Beyond the sporting challenge that awaits us, we will be keen to be faithful to our values, qualify for the play-offs and to offer nice shows to our fans."
Listening to his words, making it out of the group B would be a big achievement for Nantes. But looking at Nantes' past results in the EHF Champions League, you cannot help but think that the French side might be hoping for a little bit more than just that. Zagreb, Veszprém, Aalborg were three of the few teams that flew back from the H Arena empty-handed in the 2020/21 season, which makes us think that Nantes can hope for a brighter season if they improve their home form.
Under the spotlight: Ivan Pesic
Ivan Pesic turned 33 in March, but the Croatian goalkeeper is facing a challenge that he has never have tried to overcome before. After three seasons of Danish goalkeeper Emil Nielsen making the H Arena his own, Pesic will now have to build his own status – and that will not be easy.
While Pesic has produced some crazy performances with Meshkov Brest in the past, his last season was an odd one, split between Brest and Stuttgart, the Bundesliga side he joined just before Christmas. Nantes’ performances in the last three seasons owed a lot to Nielsen. And if Nantes want to perform as well, Pesic will have to rise to the challenge.
How they rate themselves
Barça, Kiel, Kielce, Szeged and Aalborg – the draw was not that kind to Nantes. "And don’t forget Celje and Elverum, who were champions in their respective countries as well," added coach Gregory Cojean.
With the season not yet under way, Nantes do not want to sound too full of themselves. However, their clear goal is to make it to the play-offs. "This will be a great challenge for the team," said Cojean.
Playing all of those games will be special for Nantes' young players, some of whom will discover the Champions League for the first time. For some, like captain Valero Rivera, this is almost another season at the Champions League office, but that does not mean the Spanish left wing is not looking forward to one special game.
"Playing in Barcelona is always special. Going back to the Palau in front of my friends and family is always a good time," said Rivera, who played at the Palau Blaugrana from 2001 to 2005 and from 2016 to 2018.
Did you know?
New coach Gregory Cojean has been a member of HBC Nantes for 16 years, but he had never been named as head coach until it was confirmed that he would replace Alberto Entrerrios. Apart from a couple of league games in 2009, he was responsible for the development of the youth teams or was assistant coach, first to Thierry Anti and then to Alberto Entrerrios.
Cojean, who signed his first contract with Nantes when he was 28, experienced the EHF FINAL4 twice as an assistant coach, in 2018 and 2021. He has now signed contract for two seasons to replace Alberto Entrerrios.
What the numbers say
Nantes have played four European semi-finals in the last 10 years – either in the EHF Champions League or the EHF Cup – but the French club have not won a European trophy, despite playing in three finals.
No team with so few participations in European Cup competitions can count as many participations at final tournaments as Nantes. While their past performances can definitely be seen as achievements, all the club is waiting for now is a European trophy.
Newcomers and departures
Newcomers: Jorge Maqueda (Telekom Veszprém), Kauldi Odriozola (Bidasoa Irun), Hallgrímsson (GOG), Ivan Pesic (TVB 1898 Stuttgart), Jeremy Toto (HC Vardar 1961)
Departures: Emil Nielsen (Barca), Milan Milic (HC PPD Zagreb), Dragan Pechmalbec (Telekom Veszprém), Mickaël Robin (Saint-Raphael Var Handball), David Balaguer (Paris Saint-Germain HB), Kiril Lazarov (retired), Alberto Entrerrios (Coach – Limoges)
EHF Champions League:
Participations (including 2022/23 season): 5
Runners-up (1): 2017/18
Semi-finals (1): 2020/21
Quarter-finals (1): 2018/19
Last 16 (1): 2016/17
EHF European League:
Quarter-finals (1): 2021/22
Runners-up (2): 2012/13, 2015/16
French Cup: 1 title (2016/17)
French League Cup: 2 titles (2014/15, 2021/22)
French Super Cup: 1 title (2017)