Four X-factors to work in favour of EHF FINAL4 participants
With the EHF FINAL4 just around the corner, the four participating teams are on the final straight in trying to build up their form, so they can click at precisely the right time in the MVM Dome in Budapest. Two of those sides, FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria and Team Esbjerg, have the chance to clinch their first-ever title in the European premium competition.
There will surely be no shortage of drama in Budapest next weekend, but to try and profile all the sides taking on the court at the EHF FINAL4, we identified their main strengths and ranked them accordingly, in the last edition of our power rankings for the current season in the European premium competition.
4. FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria
The Hungarian side finished in fourth place in the group stage, with seven wins, one draw and six losses, including one of the most lopsided ones in the competition this season, 20:40, against SG BBM Bietigheim. This season was far from easy for the Hungarian team, which was still looking for their first EHF FINAL4 berth, but 2023 proved to be an excellent year for them so far.
Coach Gabor Elek will leave his post after a 16-year tenure and maybe, just maybe, the players also tried to do him some justice for the excellent job he did over the last decade for FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria. Therefore, when nobody gave the Hungarian side a chance, they bounced back in style and delivered a masterclass of a performance against Metz Handball.
Down by six goals after the first leg of the quarter-final against the French side, FTC bounced back and sealed a 33:26 away win, turning everything on its head. It was a show of resilience, experience and grit and this is the recipe that FTC will bring in Budapest. Teams that did boast an up-and-down season excelled at the EHF FINAL4 – case in point CSM Bucuresti in 2016 – therefore FTC can also spring some surprises here, in front of their own fans.
3. Team Esbjerg
X-factor: Henny Reistad
Reistad took the world by storm in the 2020/21 season, when she helped Vipers Kristiansand seal their first-ever title in the EHF Champions League Women, before moving on to Team Esbjerg. The Norwegian back has become better and better since then and became the MVP of the EHF EURO 2022 last November when she helped Norway seal the gold medal.
Reistad is not only the top goal scorer of this season in the European premium competition, with 130 goals in 18 games, needing 21 goals to break the all-time scoring record in a single season in the EHF Champions League Women, held by Natalia Morskova since the 1996/97 season. She can also become the all-time top scorer in the EHF FINAL4, needing only 10 goals to jump into first place, currently held by former Györi Audi ETO KC centre back Nycke Groot.
The Norwegian back can be unstoppable at times and is the focal point of Esbjerg’s attack, but the Danish side can pretty much do everything they want in attack, with a stellar lineup, which also includes Nora Mørk, who can become the first player in history to secure seven titles in the EHF Champions League Women.
2. Györi Audi ETO KC
This is the ninth edition of the EHF FINAL4 and no team has made it to Budapest more times than Györi Audi ETO KC, which only missed out on one edition, in 2014/15, when Ambros Martin’s side had a plethora of injuries and was eliminated in the quarter-finals by North Macedonian side Vardar.
Györ have always been one of the prime candidates to secure the big prize, but their last title came in the 2018/19 season, missing out on the trophy in the past two editions, when they lost the semi-final against Brest Bretagne Handball and the final against Vipers Kristiansand.
These will be Ambros Martin’s last two games for Györ, with no other coach featuring more times – seven – than the Spanish mastermind in the EHF FINAL4. That type of planning, knowing exactly when to rest players and when to press the right buttons, is undoubtedly crucial for any side, especially for Györ, which seem to have shrugged off some issues from the first part of the season, when they even lost the first home match in seven years in the European premium competition against Metz Handball.
1. Vipers Kristiansand
X-factor: The strength of their attack
Only two sides – Team Esbjerg (575 goals) and Rapid Bucuresti (551) – scored more goals this season than Vipers’ 527 goals. The only catch? Vipers played two games less than the two sides, having been directly qualified to the quarter-finals phase, after securing the first place in their group.
That means that no team has scored more goals on average per game than Vipers’ 32.9 goals, with the Norwegian side proving to be unstoppable, especially in their back line, where Marketa Jerabkova, Anna Vyakhireva combined for 247 goals, with Jerabkova leading the way with 107 goals this season.
If Vipers continue to produce this level of attack, they might be unbeatable and can become only the second team in history to three-peat after Györ. With the level of experience in defence and the best record in the competition – a seven-game winning streak before Budapest and only two losses in 16 matches so far, the Norwegian side looks to be the team to beat considering all metrics and trends.