27 January 2017
Norway and Croatia take to the court for the second France 2017 semi-final with intense motivation to reach the ultimate match.
Head to head:
After beginning to compete under the independent banner in the mid-1990s, Croatia qualified for their first IHF Men’s World Championship in 1995 – and made an immediate statement by winning the silver medal. Since then the ‘Cowboys’ won the title in 2003, finished as runners-up twice, in 2005 and 2009, and ranked third in 2013.
Norway, on the other hand, have the opportunity to make history at France 2017, as they have never won a medal at any international tournament – but are now in a strong position to do so. Even reaching the IHF Men’s World Championship medal round for the first time is impressive as Norway only claimed a place at France 2017 through means of a wild card, after they failed to qualify for the previous two editions of the Championship.
In direct encounters, the balance stands at five wins for Croatia, two for Norway, and two draws between IHF World Championship and EHF EURO events; the Scandinavian team has never qualified for the Olympic Games. Most recently the teams met three times at major competitions in 2016 – first at the EHF EURO 2016, where Norway stormed to a historic fourth-place finish after ranking 14th at the 2014 edition of the continental championship.
In Poland, Norway won the preliminary round encounter 34:31, but lost the bronze-medal match with a final score of 31:24 in favour of Croatia. One player from each side was named in the EURO All-star Team: Croatia’s Manuel Strlek on left wing and Norway’s Sander Sagosen at centre back.
Following the EHF EURO 2016, Croatia and Norway competed for places at Rio 2016, meeting at Olympic Qualification Tournament III where Denmark and Croatia claimed the tickets to the first-ever Games held in South America. At the OQT, Norway drew 25:25 with Denmark, who went on to win their first-ever Olympic gold in men’s handball but lost the deciding match 27:21 to Croatia.
The teams know each other quite well due to the number of meetings over the last year, and all agree the key to the match will be Croatia success at limiting Norway’s counter attack game. “It’s a very tactical team – it will be a very difficult game, that’s for sure. Still, I think there is a chance for us to go through, but we have to play at our very best level to have a chance,” says Norway coach Christian Berge. “The key for us will be our defence and our goalkeeper. And we have to run to make easy goals on fast breaks. We have the same tactic in every game: we run. Every time we get the chance, we run. And then when we’re tired, we change and we run some more (laughs).
“We’re not happy already, maybe last year in the European Championship we were happy about the semi-final, but this year we’re not happy – we want more, we’re hungry,” says the former national team player, who, coincidentally, played the last match of his international career against Croatia in 2006.
Croatia goalkeeper Ivan Stevanovic spoke of the Norwegian task ahead: “We do not care about our previous results we had last year, as the semi is a completely new match. They are quick as foxes, so I guess my teammates will have to run a lot. We know each other very well – they are in fact exactly the same team as they were last year. I think the match will be very tough – it’s 50/50!”
Two players to watch…
Croatia – Domagoj Duvnjak (28): Domagoj Duvnjak has been a stalwart in the national team for more than 10 years, despite his young age. The THW Kiel player has won medals at every major international championship – but never a gold, was awarded IHF World Handball Player of the Year in 2013, claimed the EHF Champions League 2012/13 title, and was named in the All-star Team at both the 2013 World Championship and the EHF EURO 2014.
Norway – Torbjorn Bergerud (22): Saving 32 per cent of shots thrown his way, the young keeper really has started to make a name for himself at France 2017. Since the start of the tournament, the Holstebro’s player has been decisive in key moments, such as in Norway’s quarter-final against Hungary (31:29), when he picked up the Best Player of the Match award. Bergerud’s 1,99 cm tall frame has definitely helped him grow into a formidable shot-stopper throughout the tournament.
Bruno Martini, world champion with France in 1995 and 2001, spoke about his thoughts on the semi-final tie…
“It is a surprise to see the Croatians at this level, because they arrived in the competition with a lot of players missing. Duvnjak is really the heart of the team, if he plays well, his team will be good. If he doesn’t, Croatia could be in a difficult position. Norway have confirmed that they belong at this level after their semi-final finish at the EURO 2016. Sander Sagosen is the stand-out player in his team. It’s amazing that they do not seem to be threatened by any team.”