24 January 2017
On the paper, it is the top match of the quarter-finals at France 2017. The 2003 World Champions Croatia face the 2005 and 2013 World Champions Spain for a spot in the semi-final and the ticket to Paris. Both sides had big problems in their eighth-finals, but now both have a 50/50 match ahead of them in Montpellier.
Quarter-final: Croatia vs Spain, Tuesday, 20:45 hrs in Montpellier
Since 2005, Spain were part of five World Championship semi-finals, four EURO semis and one at Olympic Games, winning six medals (two gold, one silver and three bronze). Croatia’s last trophy at major tournaments dates back to 2004, when they became Olympic champions for the second time and one year later they became World Champions. But since their last trophy, they have won four silver and bronze medals at major events, being among the top six at the last 15 straight tournaments.
So one of them will fight for medals again. “We will have a 50/50 chance in this match,” said Croatian coach Zeljko Babic, after his quite shaky team had beaten Egypt in the eighth-finals 21:20. His counterpart, Jordi Ribera, had the same problems, as his Spaniards were close to elimination against Brazil (28:27), but now are, aside from France, the only group winner and the only team with the optimum of six wins in a quarter-final. “The Croatian players know how to win crucial matches like this duel. They are strong in defence and in attack they count on their mastermind Domagoj Duvnjak,” Ribera said
On the Spanish side, all the players are fit, only left back Joan Canellas is facing some minor injury problems. The Croatian’s right back Luka Stepancic is in question after twisting his ankle against Egypt. “We have to wait to see if he can play,” Babic said.
The last time, both sides faced in a crucial match was the EURO 2016 semi-final, when Spain had the upper hand winning 33:29. Two years before, Spain took the bronze medal at the EURO in Denmark with a 29:28 win in the bronze medal match against the Croatians. But still the most memorable ever was the 2005 World Championship Final, when the underdogs from Spain beat the favoured Croats 40:34.
Before their encounter in Montpellier, both sides agree that the defence is the key: “Spain have two very strong goalkeepers and can build up a huge defensive wall. We have to find solutions and mainly must avoid ‘black holes’ in attack, like we had them against Germany and Egypt,” said left Zlatko Horvat.
“Croatia have such tall guys in defence, it will be really hard to find the gaps”, says Spanish right back Alex Dujshebaev, who like Canellas will face his Vardar Skopje teammate, Croatian centre back Luka Cindric. Other teammate duels are the ones of Spanish goalkeeper Rodrigo Corrales and Croatian wing Lovro Mihic (both Wisla Plock/Poland) and Spanish line player Julen Aguinagalde with Croatian wing Manuel Strlek, both from the current Champions League winner Kielce (Poland).
The players to watch:
Spain – Julen Aguinagalde: No other line player had been awarded by more All-star team nominations (World and European championships, Champions League) than the 34-year-old Aguinagalde. In attack, he is seen to be the most powerful line player of the world. Mostly, when he gets the ball, the end result is almost always a goal or penalty. Due to his height and power, the 2013 World Champion and 2016 Champions League winner with Polish side Kielce is simply unstoppable.
Croatia – Domagoj Duvnjak: Though Duvnjak had problems with his knee, he is still the leader of Croatian attack. The 2013 World Handball Player of the Year is either the shooter from the left back or centre back position or the classic playmaker. The 28-year-old Duvnjak plays for THW Kiel in Germany after he steered HSV Hamburg to their sensational Champions League trophy in 2013. He never won a gold medal with his national team, but has won silver three times and bronze four times.
Photos: DR/Montigny – / Francehandball2017