Veszprem and Kielce seek to break German-Spanish dominance

Veszprem taking on a yellow and blue opponent, although here it is NOT Kielce...

Veszprem taking on a yellow and blue opponent, although here it is NOT Kielce…

So finally is the very long, and sometimes boring, group stage of the EHF Men’s Champions League completed. There were so many strong teams involved, and occasionally there were some really high-quality games, but this was often overshadowed by one-sided games between teams of different calibers or meaningless games between strong teams that had already secured advancement. Clearly this points to flaws in the format, but I will get back to that.

It also turns out that the demise of AG Copenhagen left a big hole in the draw that Bjerringbro was not able to fill. I do not want to detract from the remarkable string of ten straight wins for Kielce, but this really seemed to happen in a mediocre group, especially compared with the situation in some of the other groups. The sad events and decline involving Montpellier led to their elimination on the very last day of group play, but they may have been unlucky to find themselves in the toughest group. From among the other teams that did not qualify, I want to mention Croatia, a young and often exciting team that simply may not have had the experience and cohesiveness yet.

The four German teams all finished first or second in their respective groups, but it is surely a bit odd to see Kiel failing to win their group, and they now must pay the price in the form of a tough opponent in the next round. Barcelona prevailed against Berlin in their group, but it is harder to assess the strength of Atletico Madrid. They finished behind Veszprem and Kiel, losing all four games against those teams, but that may not tell the full story about their strength.

The draw for the 1/8-finals was undertaken today, following the pattern of group winners taking on fourth-placed teams and second-place teams encountering those who finished third. The higher-placed teams have the advantage of playing the second game at home, and the games will take place during March 13-17 and March 20-24. Celje-Hamburg, Ademar-Veszprem, Szeged-Kielce and Bjerringbro-Barcelona are the four games involving the group winners. The other games are: Gorenje-Flensburg, Medvedi-Kiel, Minsk-Skopje and Atletico Madrid-Berlin.

One would instinctively feel that the group winners are in a good position to advance to the quarter-finals, and personally I would find it difficult to believe in an upset in any of those four match-ups. In the other four games, one could instead say that here it seems much more unpredictable. Who would be sure of the outcome in Atletico Madrid-Fuechse Berlin, which seems like the most exciting pairing? Kiel did get a solid opponent that could probably win at home. But Kiel has such a depth of top players, so that it is hard to see them fail to prevail in the aggregate of home-and-away matches. Flensburg may seem like an obvious favorite, but watch out!

Discussions of format changes for the 2014-15 season are already taking place. It is apparent that the views of the top clubs are somewhat polarized. The German clubs have enough tough competition at home, so they do not want a long schedule of less exciting games in the Champions League. Other clubs, such as the French or Slovenians, may also have a strong interest in their national leagues, but they still thrive on the Champions League competition. For virtually everyone else, the Champions League is THE main event of the season, as these clubs are too dominant in their national leagues. So these clubs will want more games in the Champions League.

The number of games wanted may not necessary point to a specific solution in terms of how many teams should be allowed to participate. The key is instead the size of the groups into which the teams are divided, and this could be anything from four to eight or even twelve. Perhaps it would be feasible to have some geographical divisions, moreover with groups of different sizes. But clearly it is a ‘political’ issue to determine the access to Champions League. It may make for more exciting competition to reduce from 24 to 16, but nations that were not included this season may instead push for 32. It will be interesting to see what comes out of the discussions, and whether there is any hint of an emerging ‘Euroleague’ in years to come.