EURO2014 qualifying – who will be the ‘lucky loser’?

Winning in Slovenia is never easy, but Iceland managed to do so...

Winning in Slovenia is never easy, but Iceland managed to do so…

Right at the time when most handball fans in Europe are focusing on the upcoming quarter-finals in the EHF Champions League, they have to switch gear and get out their flags and shirts in support of their respective national teams. This is the ‘middle’ weekend in the qualifying for the Men’s EURO 2014, so all the best national teams in Europe are in action. Of course, with very few teams remaining in EHF club competitions at this stage, it seems the complaints about releasing players to national teams should be limited.

EURO 2014 will be held in Denmark in January 2014, and Denmark is also the defending champion. And this combination will be extremely important for one specific team when the qualifying groups are completed. This is what I refer to in my heading. Normally, two slots would be taken by the organizer and the defending champion, but now we need to reserve one such slot for Denmark. So when we have seven qualifying groups of four teams each, not only will the top two in each group qualify for EURO2014, but the extra twist is that so will the ‘best third-placed team’. By this is meant the team that got the best results against the top two teams in their group. So on the final day, one of seven third-placed teams will be able to celebrate as the ‘lucky loser’. And it will also create some added excitement towards the end, as some games will be more meaningful than otherwise would have been the case.

After all this ‘theory’ what is then the situation at the half-way point? Well, the reality is that we have a mix of exciting and boring groups. There are some groups where it seems pretty clear which two teams will go through. For instance, Hungary beat Croatia today in an emotional game, but clearly both teams will qualify. The same situation involves the group where Sweden today pulled away from Poland in the second half, but these two teams surely will come out on top. Another such group has the young, ‘new’ French team getting the upper hand on Norway, but with the remaining two teams appearing to have no chance. But the other four groups will clearly provide more drama when the qualifying finishes up in mid-June.

Spain seems to be in the most comfortable position as the superior team in its group, but the fight for second place among Portugal, FYRO Macedonia and Switzerland is likely to go ‘down to the wire’. The Germans have put themselves in a tough position, after an earlier defeat against Montenegro was followed by one more letdown against the Czech Republic today. Perhaps Germany will become one of the candidates for the ‘lucky loser’ spot!? Austria created a bit of a sensation today by beating Serbia, where Ilin could not quite manage to carry the team all by himself. With Russia showing good form in this group, the Serbs cannot afford to lose again to the Austrians on Sunday.

Another surprise today was the Icelandic victory in Slovenia, where they turned the game around in the final minutes. This would put the Slovenians in a precarious position, should they lose also in Reykjavik on Sunday, because Belarus would then be a strong contender for the second place in the group. I talked at the outset about club teams having to release players for the national teams. The mere fact that the Icelandic pivot Kristjansson took part in the game against Slovenia today did not go over too well with his club Wetzlar. They promptly canceled his contract. The background is that Kristjansson has been out with a back injury for a long while, unable to play for Wetzlar. So it now seems that he showed his priority for the national team a little bit too clearly.

Finally, it is hard to believe, but the qualifying for the EURO2016 is also underway! Today there was a game in the preliminary round between Great Britain and Italy. For those who had hoped that the Olympic participation last summer would give a boost, today’s result will come as a major disappointment. The Italians won up in Scotland with the score 47-23.