A three-way tussle impossible to predict
Eight teams, six places in the VELUX EHF Champions League knock-out stage. The battle for progression in the top European competition was always going to be fierce, yet with three rounds remaining in Group A, the deadlock for sixth place – and who earns a Last 16 berth – is not broken, as there is a three-way tie between Montpellier, Kristianstad and Meshkov Brest.
There are still 180 minutes of handball to be played by each of the three sides and predicting who is going to be the sixth team to join the Last 16 is as difficult as ever. But who is the favourite to progress?
A tougher schedule for Montpellier and Kristianstad
Probably the most important factor to be taken into consideration is the remaining schedule for the last three rounds.
Montpellier look to have the toughest mission, with trips to Kielce and Vardar looming as well as a home game against group leaders Barça Lassa, who could seal first place on the table with a win next week. Kielce and Vardar are in a four-way battle for second, so the title holders will surely have their work cut out for them against such motivation.
However, the French side are upbeat and will try and ride their recent good form into the Last 16.
“After the win against Brest, we can believe in progressing to the next phase again. The intensity in attack and defence was what we needed and we have to push this in all the remaining three games,” said Melvyn Richardson, Montpellier’s top scorer.
It does not get any better for Kristianstad, who will face Barça and Vardar ahead of a season-defining trip to Brest. The Swedish side have won only one away game all season: a 31:30 nail-biter against Montpellier – a victory that could hamper the French team’s chance of progressing.
Last but not least, Brest will host Rhein-Neckar Löwen this week, before a trip to Veszprém, followed by a home game against Kristianstad to finish the group phase. From an analytical point of view, Brest look to be in the best position to take advantage of this schedule, regardless of their form.
The form guide: who’s hot and who’s not
The Belarusian side might have the easiest schedule, but they are winless since Round 2 – nine games, their second worst record in the Champions League. After a home draw, 31:31, against Vardar three rounds ago, Brest lost two consecutive games and are on the brink of failing to progress to the next phase of the competition. The morale in the team is not low, but failing to come close to a win more than once in the last two months could hamper the team’s confidence.
On the flip side, Montpellier could be viewed as the team in form. Two wins in the past four games have breathed new life into the French side, which has also welcomed back last year’s VELUX EHF FINAL4 MVP Diego Simonet. The title holders were close to securing a home win against Kristianstad three rounds ago, but a collapse in the dying seconds left them emptyhanded.
Kristianstad also took their two wins over the past five games, but are now on a two-game losing streak. Although the Swedish side came close to earning one point last week against Kielce, the Polish squad were too experienced and too deep to stumble at the buzzer.
A game of defence and attack
The surprise package of last season’s VELUX EHF Champions League, Montpellier, were always going to find replicating their success difficult – but it has been an under-par season from every point of view for Patrice Canayer’s side, especially on the offensive end.
However, Melvyn Richardson has become reliably consistent for the French side. The right back has scored 71 goals, the second highest number in the premium European competition this season. Richardson is poised to leapfrog the leader, Nico Rönnberg, whose team, Cocks, have been eliminated.
The title holders found new life in attack over the past four rounds, yet they still have the least efficient offence in the competition judging by the number of goals scored – 294, or 26.7 per game. Brest are not far away, with 300 goals scored, while Kristianstad have shown more promise in offence, with 317.
However, things change on the defensive side. Kristianstad have conceded the most goals – 368, or an average of 33.4 goals per game – as their fast-paced game tires opponents, but also leaves easy chances to score against them. Brest have conceded 344 goals, while Montpellier’s defence conceded 318 – only six more than leaders Barça Lassa.
Who will the math help?
It is impossible to predict who will progress to the next round, as all three teams have their flaws and strengths. The math will decide in the end, but right now things are looking complicated.
A three-way tie would favour Brest, provided they do not lose against Kristianstad in the last round.
A level finish between Montpellier and Brest would suit the French side, who hold the tiebreaker in virtue of their 29:23 win in the last round.
Last, but not least, Kristianstad will progress if they find themselves tied with Montpellier, as the 31:30 away win worked wonders for the Swedish side.
There are pros and cons for all three teams, but only their current form will help as the battle for Group A’s last qualifying place unfolds. Who said that handball is enjoyable only when the first-placed teams are involved?Author: Adrian Costeiu / cg