The EHF Champions League gets underway today and without a doubt it provides the very best opportunity to watch top flight professional handball on a regular basis. Fans in the U.S. can see most of the matches live and all the matches on a delayed basis at ehftv.com. And, if you have beIN Sports you can catch the Match of the Week live on their digital platform beIN Sports Connect.
Last year I wrote a commentary highlighting that while the games are great to watch the format has a lot to be desired in terms of drama during the Group Phase. This is because in Groups A and B (the top two groups) 6 of 8 teams advance to the Knockout Phase. And, not only do too many teams advance, each of these groups also includes 2-3 clubs that are, on paper, substantially weaker. It’s practically ordained that the top 5 clubs will advance in each group.
About the only drama, such as it is, is the jockeying for seeding position in the Round of 16. 1st place teams receive a bye to the quarterfinals while 2nd and 3rd place teams, in theory, have an easier matchup. This leaves the 4th and 5th placed clubs with a challenging knockout pairing that could go either way. Finally, there’s often a battle for 6th place and a shot at beating the 3rd place team in the other group.
As far as Groups C and D go, these clubs fight for the right for 2 spots in the knockout tournament where they get to take on the 2nd place clubs from Groups A and B. For the most part they are comparable in terms of strength to the bottom clubs in Groups A and B. But, there are exceptions and apparently some problems with the seeding formula. In particular, the French League has gotten stronger recently and Nantes and Montpellier were both misplaced resulting in the 2nd place finishers in Groups A/B actually having tougher matchups than the 3rd place finishers. This year Nantes has been given a slot in the upper groups, but Montpellier is still there looming as a likely tougher than deserved Round of 16 opponent.
Here’s how each of the Groups should play out based on the published odds at betbrain.com
Based on these odds, there’s a pretty big gap in quality between the top 6 and Zagreb and Kristianstad. Zagreb recently signed Zarko Markovic, who’d been playing in Qatar, though, and might be able to crack its way into a Round of 16 slot. At the upper end of the group, Barca and Vardar are expected to fight for the R16 bye, while R-N L will try to hold off Nantes and Szeged for 3rd. I’m thinking Nantes is more than capable of doing so and with R-N L playing in the competitive Bundesliga they may be hard pressed to give 100% in all of the CL matches
According to these odds Paris is a heavy favorite to finish first and secure a bye. While Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel will all jockey for positions 2-5. This makes sense to me and overall Group B appears to be stronger than Group A. This means that on paper, the top 5 sides of Group B will make the QF with the most competitive QF being their 5th place finisher being the favorite against Group A’s 4th place team (R-N L or Nantes)
Groups C and D should be pretty much a yawner with only Montpellier being seen as a serious threat to win an R16 matchup.
Round of 16 Predictions
I see no reason to buck the odds listed except in one case. I’ll go with Zagreb over Wisla Plock in Group A. In Group B I’ll predict the top 6 listed and for C&D I’ll go with Leon and Montpellier respectively. I also am OK with the Group A and B favorites, Barca and Paris, winning their groups.
Here the predictions are a bit fuzzier, but I’ll go with 5 teams from Group B (Paris, Veszprem, Kielce, Flensburg and Kiel) advancing and 3 teams from Group A (Barcelona, Vardar and R-N L). Potential party crashers again will be those pesky French sides Nantes and Montpellier.
Final Four Predictions
For the Final Four it’s a real shot in the dark as it’s hard to project matchups and who’s playing well next spring. But, I’ll pick Barcelona, Paris, Kielce and Flensburg. And, as I’ve been saying for the past couple of years, it’s Paris’ turn. I’m going to be right one of these years even if Omeyer’s time as an elite goalie is running short.
For the Record…
Last year my predictions about how things will materialize wasn’t exactly right. Hungary’s Szeged surprised me and finished 3rd in Group Play ahead of Rhein-Neckar. This gave Szeged an easier route to the QF vs Silkeborg and resulted in Rhein-Neckar losing to Kiel. Further, Montpellier knocked out Kielce in the Round of 16. That being said, I had said that if anyone was going to crash the party it would be Szeged and Nantes. I should have added Montpellier to that list.
But, I will always have my 2013-14 preseason prediction where I nailed the Final Four and the eventual champion, Flensburg, Exactly. It’s documented on youtube. See for yourself at the 27:20 and the 30:25 mark. I don’t care how many horrible predictions I’ve made over the years I’ll always have that.