Leonel Maciel: “Strength of our collective is the basis”
As one of Sporting CP’s most experienced players – and an EHF Champions League winner – goalkeeper Leonel Maciel is aware his Portuguese side need a strong performance Tuesday to make up a three-goal deficit against Bidasoa Irun in the deciding leg of the EHF European League Men Last 16. Statistics might speak in Sporting’s favour, too.
After a match with two different faces last Tuesday, Sporting CP had to settle for a 30:27 away defeat against Bidasoa Irun in the Spanish side’s Artaleku arena.
Sporting were never behind in the first half, led by 12:11 at the break, before a 6:1 run for the hosts at the start of the second half turned the match around.
What need Sporting to do when they host Bidasoa Irun in the return leg on Tuesday (live on EHFTV at 20:45 CEST)? According to Leonel Maciel, the 34-year-old Argentine goalkeeper, it will come down to playing fast.
“Playing with speed and putting the pace of the game extremely high. Our young players manage to do that very well and that could be the key,” Maciel said.
Another factor might be the home crowd at the João Rocha Pavilion.
“Of course, it can make a difference. We have to try to take advantage of that strength of our supporters, always focused on the game and enjoying a great atmosphere in our favour,” Maciel added.
Still, the Argentine goalkeeper shows a lot of respect for the opponents, highlighting the experience of some of their players.
“Bidasoa Irun are a team with a lot of experience. They have very experienced players like (Julen) Aguinagalde and (Rodrigo) Salinas. Bidasoa are a historic team, with tactical discipline. We have to be at our best level to get a turnaround,” Maciel said.
Back in time in Argentina, where he was born in Buenos Aires, the young Leo divided his time between football, a sport loved so much in the country of the current world champions, and handball. But at the age of 15, he made up his mind for good and started playing only handball and more seriously.
“From then on, there was no doubt. I have never stopped playing handball,” he said.
Maciel came to Europe and first played in Spain, for Posada, in 2009. He returned to Argentina for a few seasons but has been ever present in Europe since 2015, playing for Zamora and Cuenca, before arriving at Barça in 2021.
What followed was a career highlight for Maciel, being part of the team that successfully defended their title in the EHF Champions League that season.
“It was an incredible experience representing Barça. I didn't play as many minutes as I liked, but I learned a lot. It was unforgettable,” Maciel said.
“And now I try to pass some of those lessons learned to our team, which are very young. Due to my age and way of being, I feel that I have this responsibility. I have to take away our team's nervousness and precipitation in the most decisive parts of the games.”
Maciel joined Sporting last summer for his first club outside Argentina or Spain. The “physical and individual quality” were the attributes that most impressed him in Portuguese handball.
“There are players with a lot of talent, both in our team and at our rivals, with a lot of power and technical skills,” he said.
It was an incredible experience representing Barça. I didn't play as many minutes as I liked, but I learned a lot. It was unforgettable. Now I try to pass some of those lessons learned to our team, which are very young. Due to my age and way of being, I feel that I have this responsibility.
Sporting ended group C in the EHF European League in second place with 14 points, after winning four of their five home matches. On the other hand, Bidasoa Irun ranked third in group D with nine points, but failed to win any of their five away matches.
Maciel’s performances have been a key factor to Sporting’s strong home record. His 110 saves in total rank him seventh on the EHF European League goalkeepers list this season, and he is fourth on the penalty savers list after stopping nine.
“The strength of the collective is the basis of everything. When we manage to be very intense in defence, it helps me a lot,” the goalkeeper said.
“If we achieve a defensive process with power and coordination, I can always respond better, with my reading of the opponent's shots. Working together always makes the difference.”