Smits: We still live our dream of making it to Budapest

MAL7445 V EHF / Björn Pazen

SG BBM Bietigheim were the surprise package of the first part of this EHF Champions League Women season. After five rounds, the German champions had nine points to their name and topped group A. 

“This start was incredible: We turned the match against defending champions Vipers around and we beat FTC by 20 goals, simply brilliant,” says Xenia Smits, team captain and defensive boss of Bietigheim.

“Since then, not only did our expectations grow, but - even more important - our opponents did not recognise us as underdogs, but prepared very well for us and did not expect easy matches anymore.”

Things have changed at Bietigheim since the middle of October. Smits and her teammates have not won any of their last six matches. They only took a draw against Brest and dropped from the top of the group to position 5, only one point ahead of sixth-ranked side Brest and two ahead of seventh-placed Krim.

“We all know that the pressure is on us now, if we want to make it to the Last 16,” says Smits, who is one of only two Bietigheim players who have played at the Women’s EHF FINAL4 in Budapest. The German international, who was born in Belgium, qualified in 2019 with her former club Metz while her Danish teammate Trine Østergaard was part of the first edition in 2014 with her former club FC Midtjylland (now Ikast).

Last weekend, Bietigheim were close to ending this series of defeats, but ultimately lost 32:34 at defending champions Vipers.

“It was a much, much better match compared to the ones before. Everyone could see our improvement, and of course at Kristiansand it is really hard to win for every team. Of course, if you only look at the points, we did not stop our downswing, but in terms of our performance it was a clear step forward," thinks Smits.

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Next Sunday (14:00 CET, live on EHFTV) Smits and Bietigheim have their second consecutive MOTW ahead - this time they face top side CSM Bucuresti, and the Romanians can already clinch an automatic quarter-final berth by winning in Germany.

“A draw like in the first duel against this world class selection would be good, to be honest, we are aiming to win this match to remain in the race for the Last 16," says Smits.

Together with three more Bietigheim players, she was part of the German team which beat Romania (including several CSM players) at the EHF EURO 2022. A good omen?

“No,” says Smits. “You cannot compare clubs and national teams. For example, CSM count on French star Grade Zaadi, and she can turn a match around on her own.” Zaadi was Smits’ teammate at Metz.

“We have respect for CSM, but we are not afraid of them, as our squad is almost fully back again,” she adds. Only Dutch world champion Dannick Snelder and German international Antje Döll are still ruled out by long-term injuries, though the others are back on track.

Despite the series of defeats, Smits still lives her dream of returning to Budapest - now with Bietigheim.

“Of course, we can still dream, but the situation has changed compared to October, it has not become easier for us. But as long as there is a chance to make it to the EHF FINAL4 as the first German team ever, we are eager to grab it,” says Smits, who did not only win the European League last season with Bietigheim, but also was awarded MVP of the EHF Finals 2022 in Viborg.

An additional motivation for the German champions and cup winners is to say farewell in a special way to their outgoing coach Markus Gaugisch, who will only focus on the German women’s national team after this season.

“A trip to Budapest would be a perfect gift for Markus - but in general, it is not only about him, but the whole team,” Smits notes.

Bietigheim have already found a successor for Gaugisch - a former CSM coach, the Dane Jakob Vestergaard, who steered Viborg HK to the Champions League trophies in 2009 and 2010 and the same club into the 2022 European League final against Bietigheim on home court.

“As many contracts of players expire after this season, the signing of Jakob Vestergaard is a clear signal from the club to the team," Smits thinks.

Before and after facing CSM in the MOTW, Xenia Smits is crossing her fingers for two teams at the current Men’s World Championship in Poland and Sweden - Germany, and her motherland Belgium.

“I have been to the same school with some of the national team players - and as Belgium have their debut on the international stage, I really hope that they continue successfully after winning their first ever World Championship match against Morocco," she concludes.

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