National Champions of Europe – Men Part 3: Central Europe
Part three of the six-part national champions series focuses on central Europe, including Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Austria, Hungary and Poland.
Karvina reclaim title after eight years
Against all odds, HC Banik Karvina claimed the title in Czech handball’s top-flight competition. Coach Marek Michalisko’s team beat Talent Plzen 3:1 in the best-of-five series. There was plenty of drama in the title decider, but Karvina had the edge thanks to a narrow 30:29 win.
The 2018 trophy is their 11th title overall, but first after eight years – and it was quite unexpected considering the transition the club has undergone in recent years.
Karvina ended the regular season second behind the leaders from Zubri, but thanks to their game without a goalkeeper and with two line players, they surprised their opponents in the play-offs and are the deserved winners. With only one defeat and nine play-off wins, Karvina were far too strong for their opponents in the climax of the season.
Earlier in the year, Plzen lifted the Czech Cup following a victory over Karvina, 31:22.
Karvina remain the only Czech club to have featured in the VELUX EHF Champions League, in the 2006/07 season.
Domestic sunshine, European storm
The dominant side in Slovakian men’s handball is clearly TATRAN Presov. In 2017/18, coach Slavko Goluza’s team beat HK AGRO Topolcany 3:1 in the best-of-five final series to take their 14th Slovakian title – 12th in a row.
Despite the surprising defeat in the third match at home, Presov took the trophy in the fourth game, in Topolcany. This season was a bit different to the previous one however, as Presov lost three matches in the regular season and drew in two – results that had not been seen for years.
To add to the trophy list, Presov also won the Slovakian Cup, thereby completing the first Slovakian double for Slavko Goluza.
It was a farewell to the handball career of Radovan Pekar, after the long-serving captain won his 12th title with Tatran. The defensive specialist scored the first goal for Slovakia at the nation’s first ever World Championship, in 2009.
Tatran failed to impress on the European stage though. They did not make it past the qualification stage for the VELUX EHF Champions League, won only one match in the group phase of the EHF Cup, and finished the SEHA League season sixth, missing the play-offs.
Young guns firing in Celje
Even with their youngest team in history, Celje Pivovarna Lasko continued their immaculate run in the Slovenian championship. With their last domestic defeat dating back to October 2015, coach Branko Tamse’s team locked up the 2017/18 title two rounds before the end of the competition.
Riko Ribnica finished as runners-up for the first time, ahead of Slovenia’s second VELUX EHF Champions League participants, Rk Gorenje Velenje, who stumbled over their high expectations and sacked coach Zeljko Babic before finishing third.
The season saw a few youngsters stepping onto the big scene, with 17-year-old Domen Makuc making the biggest public impression of them all, showing he could become an international star in years to come.
Historic second trophy for Flensburg
In the end, one goal decided the champions of the men’s Bundesliga. Defending champions Rhein-Neckar Löwen were on their way to win their first ever double, following their triumph in the German Cup, but stumbled in the final rounds.
As Löwen let three points slip from their hands against Erlangen and Melsungen, SG Flensburg-Handewitt were somehow on top prior to the last round. To be sure, they needed to beat four-time EHF Cup winners Frisch Auf Göppingen on home ground.
Flensburg were extremely shaken, but finally took a thrilling 22:21 victory to secure their second ever German championship after 2004 – one point ahead of Löwen, including their star Andy Schmid, who was awarded best player of the Bundesliga season for the fifth straight time. In third place were EHF Cup 2017/18 winners Füchse Berlin.
The 2017/18 season was historic from another perspective, as record champions and three-time Champions League winners THW Kiel did not qualify for the next season of the EHF Champions League for the first time since 2003. They will start in the EHF Cup instead.
Fivers end the Hard curse
For the third time in club history, Vienna-based Fivers Margareten became Austrian men’s champions. In the best-of-five final series against defending champions Alpla Hard, Fivers only needed four matches to take the win, 3:1.
In 2013, 2014 and 2017, the pairing in the final series was the same, but Hard had raised all three trophies before. In 2018, Hard won the first encounter before Fivers struck back, winning all the remaining matches of the series and finishing with the decisive 26:24 in the final duel.
Hard had eliminated Westwien in the semi-finals, while Fivers won their semi series against Krems. Fivers and Hard were also on top of the ranking after the season’s main round.
Hard had the consolation of taking two trophies in the 2017/18 season: first they won the Super Cup (against Fivers) and then the Cup (in the final against Westwien).
After 11 years, Mol-Pick Szeged return to the top
Since the 2000/01 season, Veszprém have won the Hungarian championship almost every year. The only time the scenario was different was 11 years ago, when Veszprém’s long-term rivals Szeged celebrated.
In 2018, Szeged were hopeful of reclaiming the title, but even after the first play-off game, which they won 32:28, they knew the clash in Veszprém Arena would not be easy. In the return match, Veszprém coach Ljubomir Vranjes had to call a timeout in the eighth minute, when the score was 1:5. The local fans could yell only one thing: “Where is our team, where is our team”, and were shocked when the record champions left for the half-time break behind 14:17.
Veszprém started a comeback in the second half and had the chance to pull off a miracle late in the game, but missed the last chance and settled for a 29:26 result, which meant Szeged took the title.
For Telekom Veszprém, this year will not be remembered as the most successful one. Ljubomir Vranjes’ squad ‘only’ won the Hungarian Cup and were eliminated in the Last 16 of the EHF Champions League.
Kielce celebrate historic 15th title
Kielce had another smooth season as no other team, including Orlen Wisla Plock, were a serious threat to steal the title. Kielce finished the main stage in first place with 104 points and 1,168 goals scored – almost 200 goals more than the Oilers.
In the first leg of the Superliga play-off final, hosts Plock created a spectacle, but still ended up losing 33:28. In the return match, Kielce secured the title with an almost identical result, 33:29.
It was Kielce’s 15th national title, matching the total of legendary club Slask Wroclaw. They also lifted the Polish Cup for the 15th time, following a 35:29 victory over Azoty-Pulawy in the final.
After the Polish champions secured what was their seventh title in a row, they had to say goodbye to retiring legends Karol Bielecki, Slawomir Szmal and Uros Zorman.
The 2017/18 titles were the first father Talant and son Alex Dujshebaev have won together.
Author: Tomas Cuncik / Uros Volk / Björn Pazen / Magda Pluszewska / Béla Müller / cg / ew