Champions League: all set for Final Four, but did we already have the real final?

Get ready for exciting,  first-class handball in Cologne in early June

Get ready for exciting, first-class handball in Cologne in early June

Of course it is nice to have excitement in virtually all of the eight quarter-final games, and the four participants in the Final Four (Kiel, Barcelona, Kielce and Hamburg) got there in a fair and positive manner. But after you play a very long and often tedious period of group matches, what does it say about the format if you still cannot be sure that the best teams make it to the Final Four!?

It was great to follow the suspense in Kiel-Veszprem and in the Spanish rivalry between Barcelona and Atletico, but please do not try to convince me that Veszprem does not belong in the Final Four. And Atletico also is good enough to have deserved a better chance. It all goes back to the group draw with the enormous contrast between Veszprem/Kiel/Atletico in one group and Kielce/Metalurg/Velenje in another. Plus the regulations that then allow Veszprem-Kiel and Kielce-Metalurg match-ups in the quarterfinals. Having said that, I am joining all handball fans (including frustrated Veszprem and Atletico supporters, I hope) in wishing that we will have a really great Final Four on June 1-2.

Veszprem shocked Kiel in the first game by holding a sizeable lead before Kiel managed to turn it around in the end. And playing at home, Veszprem got the edge in the early going, in part by winning the goalkeeper battle. But sure enough, in the second half Kiel had another great comeback, largely due to scoring from Jicha and Vujin, but also because Palicka provided good relief for Omeyer, while Alilovic got injured. So the final result was, just like in the first game, a one-goal victory for Kiel, much to the frustration of the loud and partisan crowd.

Atletico had not had much luck against Barcelona this season, until inspired veterans Balic and Hombrados gave them the lift they needed in front of their home crowd, with a five-goal margin being the final result. But in Palau, Barcelona came out with a totally different determination, where Saric and his defense quickly drove Atletico to desperation. The result was 11-3 after 20 minutes, before the Madrilenos settled down a bit. But while the margin was down to five at one point, which meant that it was tied on aggregate, Atletico never quite recovered from the early deficit. Saric continued to be fantastic and the Barcelona shooting power was just too overwhelming. So while it was close enough to be exciting almost until the very end, Barcelona came out on top with a total advantage of three goals.

Kielce struggled early in Skopje, but the eventual two-goal margin must have been enough to feel comfortable; because in the today’s home game they were excruciatingly systematic, with an emphasis on strong defense. The second half became a mere formality and the final margin today was 26-15. Hamburg seemed to surprise Flensburg in the first game, with a massive, late surge on the way to a six-goal victory. I must admit that I am saving the viewing of today’s game until the BeIN Sport TV broadcast on Wednesday, but from what I have heard, today Flensburg seemed ready to ‘turn the table’ on their rivals. Ten minutes before the end, they were ahead in the aggregate score, but somehow HSV managed to wake up in time and come out on top by keeping today’s loss to 23-25.

And now we all have our favorite scenarios regarding the draw for the match-ups in the Final Four. Some will want to see Kiel-Hamburg in the semi-final to avoid having an all-German game in the final. Others seem more anxious to avoid having Kiel drawn against Barcelona, as that instead sounds like their ‘dream final’. So does this mean that Kielce will ‘sneak up’ on all the others, or will we find, as some suggest, that the Polish team is overrated after having had an easy group stage? The draw will take place on May 2.