The groups in the preliminary round were completed today, and the main round starts tomorrow. The format used by the EHF makes for a combination of excitement and anticlimax. They start out with 16 teams and one of the two purposes of the group play is ‘simply’ to reduce the field down to 12. Moreover, at any given point in time, Europe tends to have about 10-12 really strong teams, so the weeding out of the more marginal teams, such as the Slovaks, does not often create much excitement. But this time we had thrillers at the end. And then the fact that the teams which advance bring with them the points from the games that they have played against each other, this means that every game means a lot even when teams already know they will advance.
For instance, yesterday, Denmark-Poland was a really important game, even though both teams were already through. Based on the form showed in recent time, the Danes may have been favorites against a Polish team that seemed to have stagnated in recent time and were missing key players. And Denmark seemed to have the upper hand, but in the end they basically gave the game away. So now they are still in the main round, but in practice virtually without chances of being one of the two teams out of the six in their main round group who will go to the semifinals. What is worse is the impression that, in the games they lost, the Danes really seemed to be lacking in mental strength and fighting spirit. They looked intimidated in the game against Serbia. By contrast, the Serbs are through with the maximum four points and seem to be a great shape.
In the parallel group, one could write the same thing about the Swedes as about the Danes. They lost a point against the Macedonians, after having grumbled about the impact of the fanatic crowd. And then they seemed to be strangely optimistic prior to the final game against Germany, despite the fact that the Germans really had been ‘boxed’ in with a desperate need to win. A loss for Germany might have meant elimination yet again in a major Championship, while the win against Sweden means that they instead are through with full points just like the Serbs. The listless Swedish performance, both on the court and in terms of coaching, obviously was the cause of a major frustration in handball Sweden. And the Czechs had to pack their bags, despite the strong start with a win against Germany.
In today’s matches in Group D, we had a ‘triangle drama’ between Norway, Iceland and Slovenia. The latter two played each other, and somewhat surprisingly, after mediocre play earlier, Slovenia came through. In fact, they almost went as far as to knock out Iceland, leading 34-30 just before the end. But two late goals by Iceland rescued their advancement, although they, just like Sweden and Denmark, will move on with zero points. Norway did not manage to surprise Croatia and, although they almost ‘got in through the back-door’, in the end they had to accept elimination. What now has caused some controversy is that Slovenia seemed to ‘give away’ the last two goals for Iceland, with the reasoning that the 34-32 and the elimination of Norway instead of Iceland now gives Slovenia the advantage of bringing two points to the main round. A smart way of taking advantage of the regulations or unsportsmanlike?
Finally, in Group C we had what is undoubtedly the biggest surprise. Even after France lost against Spain, most observers had seen them as a medal contender. But that has now become almost impossible after today’s surprising defeat against Hungary. Sure, Hungary is unpredictable and had already staged a great comeback against Spain, but in the game today we saw a French team that was really ‘helpless’ and resorted to individual efforts rather than their usual team play. Karabatic was just a shadow of his usual self. So while France is still in the tournament, they are not bringing any points to the main round. And next they will have to face Slovenia and especially Croatia, who both will have great crowd support. It should be noted that the Russians joined their Nordic neighbors in the ‘meltdown’; they are out!
Most of us will now start speculating about which teams will go through to the semifinals, but as far as Teamhandballnews is concerned, I will leave that task for John Ryan…