Four in a row for Györ?
It has been a long wait before the start of the new DELO EHF Champions League season, but everything is in place for another battle between the best 16 teams in Europe.
As the clock was ticking, we watched the teams during their build-up and compiled the first Power Ranking of the season, just before throw-off this weekend.
The 2017, 2018 and 2019 title holders Györ, who are on a two-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak in Europe’s premium competition, are the obviously pick for the top position, but several challengers are eyeing the trophy as well, including Metz, Rostov-Don and some sides with the potential to surprise.
A newcomer in the DELO EHF Champions League, but a highly experienced team with a highly experienced coach in Jan Leslie. By no means, CSKA are pushovers, as they boast a strong team in every department: goalkeeper Anna Sedoykina will lead the line, with players like Marina Sudakova, Polina Vedekhina or rising star Elena Mikhaylichenko completing the roster.
Centre back Yekaterina Ilyina has been persuaded to come back from retirement in a coup for the Russian side, which is a team to look for in this season. Despite two setbacks in the Russian Cup and the Russian Super Cup against Rostov, CSKA should be more than ready to compete at the highest level and exert some pressure over their opponents.
- Team Esbjerg
The Danish side was the surprise package of last season, progressing with ease to the quarter-final for the first time. Before the start of the season, they surely looked to be a dark horse once again, only for instrumental Dutch back Estavana Polman to suffer a season-ending injury. Adding insult to injury, the Danish side saw right back Line Jørgensen also going out for the whole season, albeit for better news, as she is due to give birth in December.
Therefore, Danish coach Jesper Jensen went back to the drawing board and had to reimagine his team’s style for the upcoming season. Up until the first game in the DELO EHF Champions League, Esbjerg are four for four in the Danish League and still look strong, but their lack of depth could be their undoing in crunch games against Metz, Rostov or CSM Bucuresti this season.
- CSM Bucuresti
The Romanian side started with two easy wins in the Romanian Cup, only to falter against rivals SCM Ramnicu Valcea in the final, 22:19. For the first time in many years, CSM have found stability and did not go for a full revamp of the roster. Also, retaining coach Adrian Vasile for a new season meant that the transition was more fluent and the idea behind the game plan was not changed.
However, there are problems both in defence and in attack. CSM will need their goalkeepers to up their game for the DELO EHF Champions League, while in attack, the Romanian side must find new ways to score rather than pass the ball and rely on Cristina Neagu to score with powerful shots. Also, a slow start meant that CSM were scheduled to play Györ in the quarter-final last season, before the competition was cancelled after the main round due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore the 2015/16 winners must do better in the group phase.
Entering his 12th season as Buducnost coach, Dragan Adzic has his sights firmly on a DELO EHF FINAL4 berth come May 2021. But, unlike the last seasons, Buducnost suffered a firm makeover in the roster, with no less than 10 players departing, while six have been ushered in. Goalkeeper Barbara Arenhart and backs Andrea Lekic and Alisson Pineau will lead the line, with the Montenegrin core of captain Milena Raicevic, Majda Mehmedovic, Tatjana Brnovic and Jovanka Radicevic staying firm.
Losing Djurdjina Jaukovic will surely be a blow for Buducnost, but their defence is experienced and tested at high level, while their attack should have more creativity with Lekic and Pineau in their ranks. All in all, Buducnost will be a tough nut to crack, especially on home court.
- Brest Bretagne Handball
The French side have been one of the surprise packages last season, progressing with ease to their first ever quarter-final, only for the season to be ended prematurely. With their superb attack – the best in the competition – Brest almost ended Györ’s unbeaten streak, but only just, drawing one game and losing by the slightest of margins in the other.
Only four players left, but the French side moved quickly to squash the impact of Ewgenija Minevskaja’s departure, by bringing in Montenegrin sharpshooter Djurdjina Jaukovic, who should also help in defence. With a clean slate in friendly games, Brest eye a strong comeback in the competition, but the real tests will be against Györ, Buducnost and CSKA, as the opponents know now what to expect from Brest.
- FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria
Four of the last five EHF Champions League All-star Teams featured a best young player (under 23) from FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria, with Noemi Hafra earning the plaudits in the past two seasons. Also, back Katrin Klujber was the second-best scorer of the competition last season, with 82 goals, so the Hungarian side must have done something right in terms of uncovering raw talent.
Yet the results were not there, with their defence all over the place, as the elusive DELO EHF FINAL4 berth escaped from FTC’s grasp. This time, the Hungarian team went for three German players - Emily Bölk, Alicia Stolle and Julia Behnke - to add to their core, while experienced Dutch right wing Angela Malestein and Hungarian line player Anett Kisfaludy were also added. Results were on FTC’s side, who won all friendly games by at least five goals, including a 24:16 win against Györ.
- SCM Ramnicu Valcea
The Romanian side never overhauled the team massively, rather than investing in key areas, ushering in left back Ewgenija Minevskaja and line player Maren Aardahl to boost their core from last season. The recipe for Valcea looks the same: solid defence and some great attacking rotation, with key contributors from every side of the court.
Valcea won the Romanian Cup and the Romanian Super Cup after defeating CSM Bucuresti, 22:19, in a game where they held a seven-goal advantage during the first half. Sure, CSM came back, but never closed the gap to more than two goals, a testament of Valcea’s resilience and grit. The DELO EHF Champions League is stronger and poses more challenges, but the Romanian side learnt the hard way last season what to expect and can aim even higher this time, with consistency being the key to a successful outing.
- Metz Handball
By default, probably. Metz did not play a lot of friendly games and will break their duck in an official game this season against Nice in the French League, but the game against CSM Bucuresti, their maiden DELO EHF Champions League game of the season, will surely show where Metz are at this moment.
It was a busy summer for Metz, who saw eight players leave, including playmaker Grace Zaadi, goalkeeper Laura Glauser, left back Xenia Smith and left wing Martine Smeets, but signing playmaker Tjasa Stanko and right wing Debbie Bont will surely play in their favour in the next months. Having the All-Star coach of the last two seasons on the bench, Emmanuel Mayonnade, is a guarantee that Metz can still be a troublemaker in the European premium competition.
It was a turbulent summer for the Russian powerhouse, who saw Ambros Martin part ways with Rostov by mutual consent. With the coach, who won four EHF Champions League titles and was part of three more finals over the last decade, leaving a huge hole on the bench, Rostov moved swiftly and signed Per Johansson, the former CSM Bucuresti coach and mastermind behind Montenegro’s women national team.
Rostov also signed a creative playmaker in Grace Zaadi and will surely contend once again for the trophy, as highlighted by their Russian Cup win against CSKA, 29:26, and also by their win against CSKA in the Russian Super Cup, 27:20. Rostov mean business this season and they look set to build upon what Martin engineered in the past two seasons.
- Györi Audi ETO KC
Despite a painful loss against FTC in a friendly game, the title holders still look strong, albeit with a changed team from last season. Györ lost goalkeepers Eva Kiss and Kari Grimsbø due to retirement, while right wings Bernadett Bodi and Jana Knedlikova also left. Yet shrewd moves – goalkeepers Silje Solberg and Laura Glauser and right wing Viktoria Lukacs – meant that Györ improved just the right positions, keeping their iron-clad core intact.
The Hungarian powerhouse is currently on a record 37-game unbeaten streak, dating back to January 2018, and are eyeing their fourth title in a row. There were mishaps on the road to winning the main round group last season, but their experience was instrumental in lifting them past Brest in difficult moments, so expect more of that also this season. Their group also looks accessible, with two rookies – BV Borussia 09 Dortmund and CSKA – while crunch matches against Buducnost and Brest on the cards can exert some pressure on the Hungarian side.