I have become used to the idea of ‘sticking my neck’ out with some predictions for major championships. Often I felt reasonably comfortable with my predictions, and I even felt that I was ready to suggest some specific surprises. But this time I must admit I really do not feel I have very strong views. I have followed the results of the preparatory tournaments, the team rosters and the injury problems, without sensing that this has given me any special insights.
And I really do believe that my heading is justified. While I think this is going to be an event where most of the traditional contenders will do well, many of them are in some kind of transition, with the loss of key players or the arrival of a new coach. So I think there could be as many as ten teams having a good chance for a medal, and that you could not really talk about a surprise if any of those ten teams go to the final. But at the same time, I will be a coward and predict that Norway and France will qualify from one half of the draw, while Hungary and Romania are my best bets from the other side.
You have heard me argue that I do not really like the tournament format with four groups of four, where only one team in each group misses out on the main round. Many times this makes for a rather boring first stage in some groups, and it even leaves some room for tactics and manipulations in the third round of the groups, when some teams can afford to speculate about what result suits them best.
But at least I see some intriguing match-ups in each of the groups. While I see Norway as the favorite in group A, I wonder if the home court/crowd advantage can help Serbia overachieve, just like they did on the men’s side. It would also be nice to see if the Czech team could get to the main round, after so many years of weak showings. In group B, I see Denmark-Sweden on the first day as the key game, with a probably edge for the young Danish team. And the loser of this game may find it tough to keep FYRO Macedonia behind them. While I have already said that I see France going through to the final four, mostly on account of their physical style, I do not think they are unbeatable.
Germany’s return to the top level is causing speculation in a positive direction, while I see some experts predicting a decline for Spain this time. I think this leaves some room for an experienced Hungarian team to get off to a good start. Iceland will find it tough to win a game in group D. We have here, like several times in recent years, a Russia-Montenegro encounter; moreover with a new coach for Russia and an interesting psychological situation for Montenegro. Will the Olympic silver now lead to a letdown or will it stimulate them to a further surprise? But I think the time is now right for Romania.
Finally, the EHF has nominated six women’s couples among the twelve referee pairs. There are also six rather experienced men’s couples. In the Olympic Games we often had the sense that several of the men’s couples had major difficulties in finding the right approach to the women’s games. Let us see now if the women’s couples, despite their generally more limited experience, are better at finding the right touch for this women’s event. Good luck to all of them! Our top women’s teams deserve first-class support from the referees.