Good times, bad times: which teams surprised early in the season?
Three of the 14 rounds of the EHF Champions League Women’s group phase are now behind us, with a national team break stopping the competition this weekend. There have been favourites who shone, but also big surprises in the European premium competition so far.
Tough Vipers record best start ever
In their past two dominant seasons reigning champions Vipers Kristiansand have been diesel engines, reaching the peak of their form in the second part of the season, just as the knockout phase was throwing off. In the last season of Ole Gustav Gjekstad’s tenure as coach, things are looking different.
The Norwegian powerhouse has been nothing short of amazing in the first three matches of the season, the first time in their history when they threw off the Champions League with three wins in their first three matches. Vipers are riding a nine-game winning streak, dating back to last season, which is their best-ever in the competition.
Only one team has conceded fewer goals than Vipers’ tally of 72 – Bietigheim, who shipped only 71 goals. The Norwegian side’s attack is the fourth-best in the competition, with 92 goals. And all came during a serious rebuilding of the squad, as right back Anna Vyakhireva replaced Nora Mørk and Jamina Roberts replaced Isabelle Gulldén. In total, Vipers had six players in and six players out this summer.
Things might get harder in the future for Vipers, but this is a good a start as it can get for the reigning champions, who beat Krim Mercator Ljubljana, Brest Bretagne Handball and Odense to throw off the new season.
CSM and Rapid make Romania proud
For the first time in history, two teams from the same city, Bucharest, represent Romania in the EHF Champions League Women. The rivalry between CSM and Rapid has made both teams better in the long term, and they mirrored their results in the start of the season – taking two wins and drawing another game to climb into the top three in their groups.
Romanian champions Rapid made their debut in the European top competition in style, taking away wins against Lokomotiva Zagreb and Kastamonu. Although the two sides might be the easiest opponents in the group for the other teams, Rapid delivered convincing performances.
However, their best level of performance was the draw against Metz Handball. Metz, who reached last season’s EHF FINAL4 in Budapest, led by as many as six goals against Rapid, but the Romanian side bounced back admirably and sealed a point, missing a chance to clinch the win by failing to score in two consecutive attacks. Only Györ and Bietigheim have scored more goals than Rapid’s 96 so far in the competition, therefore making the Romanian side a team to watch in the future.
On the other hand, CSM have been long navigating times of uncertainty, with plenty of issues on and off the court. This season, though, things are looking better. Apart from a lack of a left-handed right back, the Romanian powerhouse looked strong throughout the start of the competition, with the addition of Grace Zaadi really bolstering their attack. They also did well to replace goalkeeper Jelena Grubisic with Laura Glauser and the hire of Crina Pintea also helped improve their defence.
Both Romanian sides are hot right now, but CSM have had a more difficult schedule than Rapid. The latter’s mettle will be tested when the competition comes back on 9 October, with a home game against Team Esbjerg.
Strength in numbers for Bietigheim
The biggest surprise of the season was surely SG BBM Bietigheim, the winner of last season’s EHF European League Women, who are in the middle of a 59-game unbeaten streak dating back to March 2021. Not only Bietigheim the only side to have scored at least 100 goals after three rounds, they did that in style, with an average of 38 goals scored per match in the first games.
As highlighted by statistician Julian Rux, Bietigheim’s numbers were simply amazing, especially after a strong outing in round 2’s Match of the Week against FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria. Bietgheim handed FTC their worst loss in over 100 matches in the European premium competition, 40:20, with goalkeeper Melinda Szikora delivering some immense performances.
Bietigheim are not expected to win all their matches this season, like they did last time in the EHF European League Women, but they have proven their worth, especially after a hard-fought 28:28 draw against CSM Bucuresti last Sunday. They also have the best attack and the best defence in the competition.
Györ struggle to start the new season
Losing a key player like Stine Oftedal is definitely not ideal before a game against a side that has also featured in the EHF FINAL4 in the previous season, but Györ’s 24:28 loss to Metz was a shock. It was the first home defeat for the Hungarian champions in more than seven years in the European premium competition.
Györ will undoubtedly be one of the teams to beat this season, but they are still missing plenty of players. Oftedal adds to a list which includes the MVP of the 2021 World Championship, Kari Dale, and Jelena Despotovic. While they face an easy game against Lokomotiva Zagreb when the competition resumes, they will want to look more like they did in the 31:29 win against Esbjerg than in the 24:28 loss to Metz.
Defence has been too porous in this first part of the season, but the attack has scored well, apart from the game against Metz, with 33 goals per game managed by Györ. Coach Ambros Martin has plenty of experience on the bench, but can he motivate this group of players that won almost everything there is to win to bounce back?
FTC fail to deliver the goods
Hungarian teams have not had it easy in the first rounds of the European premium competition, but the biggest disappointments are definitely FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria. Eyeing their maiden EHF FINAL4 spot, as they always do, FTC started the season with a single win in three matches, with a painful 20:40 loss against Bietigheim in the second round.
It was a surprising turn of events which will surely act as a wake-up call for coach Gabor Elek – especially as FTC started last season with seven unbeaten games in a row. There is a need to bounce back in the match against Krim when the competition resumes, but FTC have a lot of work to do, especially in attack, where they have scored the second lowest amount of goals so far, 67; only behind Lokomotiva Zagreb’s 64.
They showed character when coming back against Brest, after starting the match 0:4 down, but eventually they could not stop Djurdjina Jaukovic, who had 12 goals, as FTC only scored 20 times in a disappointing turn of events. FTC are surely cold to start the season, but their experience could help them mount a comeback later on.