Six talking points after an immersive preliminary round

TALKING POINTS: Twelve teams are still in with a chance for the medals, so it is time to see what was hot and what was not in the EHF EURO 2020 group phase

Croatia surprised in the preliminary round and Camila Micijevic is named in the round's best seven. Photo © Jozo Cabraja / kolektiff

With 24 games gone, we are taking a hard look at what happened in the last week in the European championship to see who are the in-form teams and who were the best players in the tournament so far, but also analyse what went wrong for the underperforming teams.

Norway still on top after three games

Prior to the tournament, our team of journalists compiled the power ranking for the EHF EURO 2020, with Norway coming out on top. With 24 games gone and 12 teams remaining, it is time to shuffle the pack and assess the top five teams at the tournament.

5. Croatia
Croatia came in as plucky underdogs, but with a 100 per cent record the tag no longer applies. Every opponent will be looking closely at what Croatia do right and try and stop them.

4. Denmark
The hosts showed that they can be a tough team to play against, but lost their first game against a contender, France, on Tuesday. Yet Denmark can bounce back.Coach Jesper Jensen has worked wonders at Esbjerg and was thoroughly satisfied with what his team has proven up until this point in the tournament.

3. Russia
We might have counted Russia out prior to the start of the tournament, after the loss of Anna Vyakhireva, Elena Mikhaylichenko and Anna Sen through injury. But with three wins, Russia have achieved the second-best attack in the competition, scoring 85 goals, and conceded the fourth lowest number of goals, 70. The game against Denmark in the main round is crucial.

2. France
The title-holders are back at their best after an underwhelming World Championship in 2019. France conceded only 60 goals in the first three games, only nine goals shy of the record in the group phase of the EHF EURO, held by Norway’s excellent performance in 2010. With a great pair of goalkeepers, a young, excellent line player in Pauletta Foppa, and some strong firepower in the back line, France will be tough to beat. Anyone care for a repeat?

1. Norway
Norway were close to breaking two records in the group phase of the EHF EURO: the largest number of goals scored and the biggest goal difference in the first three games in the tournament. Yet Hungary’s 107 goals at the EHF EURO 2006 remains the best attacking performance, and Norway could not beat their goal difference from 2010 (+48), stopping at ‘only’ +40 this time. Norway look as deadly as ever, with great defence, superb goalkeepers and a free-flowing attack; everything wrapped up in flawless fast breaks. They are clearly the favourites.

Best seven of the preliminary round

The team of the preliminary round features six nations. At right back and left wing respectively are Norway’s Nora Mørk and Camilla Herrem, who have scored 40 goals between them. They are joined by Croatian left back Camila Micijevic and Spanish right wing Carmen Martin, also their team’s top scorers. Russian centre back Daria Dmitrieva and Swedish line player Linn Blohm complete the outfield, while French shot stopper Amandine Leynaud earns her place between the goal posts with a 35 per cent saving efficiency in the first three games of the tournament.

Croatia – the feel-good story of the tournament

When a football player like Luka Modric goes out of his way to personally send a congratulations text, it means that you really outdid yourself. Modric is a renowned star, winning the Ballon d’Or in 2018, and praised the Croatian women’s handball team for their amazing feature in the EHF EURO 2020.

Croatia’s preparations were disrupted by a Covid-19 outbreak at Croatian champions Podravka Vegeta, meaning key players could not join the EHF EURO squad. Yet Croatia broke through first by winning against Hungary, then adding wins against reigning world champions Netherlands, and finally beating Serbia, for their best-ever start at the EHF EURO.

“In Croatia, they say there is handball and there is women’s handball, and I am always trying to show that women’s handball can even be more beautiful than the men’s,” said Sostaric, after the third win in the competition.

Although ambitions are high, Sostaric is preaching caution.

“When we came here, even in our country nobody believed in us. They just sent us here, ‘let them play handball’, you know. We click as a team, we click as a family and that we respect each other. That is what makes me happy.

“We are just going to be humble. Not to underestimate anybody, not to overestimate anybody, and just do the best that we can. And I hope that the result will come,” concluded Croatia’s coach.

How the Romanian attack has fallen to an absolute low

Romania have never finished lower than 11th at the EHF EURO in 13 participations, yet they are looking at their worst ever start in the history of the competition. With Cristina Neagu not at 100 per cent, Romania have progressed to the main round with zero points for the first time in history.

Neagu, fresh from adding her 250th goal in the history of the tournament, might have scored 16 goals and assisted another 18, topping the rankings with Nora Mørk, but she has attempted 46 goals for a meagre 35 per cent conversion rate.

The slow, economic Romanian attack is the weakest in the competition – 48 per cent efficiency – yet they could still bounce back through their defence, still one of the best in the competition.

Tactics corner

A huge part of Norway’s success is built on converting fast breaks at an alarming rate. They say, psychologically, an easy goal via a fast break counts double, as the opponent becomes nervous after losing a ball in attack and making it easy for you to score at the other end.

And maybe this is why Norway was so efficient in building a +40 goal difference in the group phase, after converting 23 of their 32 fast breaks in the first 180 minutes of the EHF EURO 2020. “We must run, run, run and try to stop them scoring their fast breaks,” said Romania’s coach Bogdan Burcea prior to the game against the Nordic side.

Ultimately, Norway won 28:20, with seven of those goals being scored on fast breaks. It is not really about being fast, but being intelligent. Wings like Camilla Herrem and Malin Aune are great at anticipating mistakes and immediately power to the other end when balls are recovered.

The difference between Norway and the other sides in converted fast breaks is staggering. Norway have nearly as many goals as the second and third teams in the standings – Hungary and France – combined.

History repeats itself at the EHF EURO 2020

At the EHF EURO 2018, Poland, Slovenia, Croatia and the Czech Republic were the teams to leave early, after being eliminated in the group phase. While Croatia have risen from the ashes, the other three sides are joined by Serbia to be eliminated once again from contention. The four will go back to the drawing board to identify the key areas that need to be corrected.

Each team came into the championship with different circumstances. And Poland were the toughest side hit by injuries to key players, including Karolina Kudlacz, Kinga Achruk and Monika Kobylinska, yet Poland almost surprised Romania and Germany, drawing with the latter.

Likewise, this was Slovenia’s fifth early exit in a row at the EHF EURO, with Uroš Bregar’s side finishing last for the third time in 14 years. The learning curve has been steep for some young players, but Slovenia learnt that they need more from their top players, like Ana Gros and Tjaša Stanko, whose performances at the EHF EURO have not matched those from the DELO EHF Champions League this season.

Both the Czech Republic and Serbia were depleted by injuries, with coaches identifying the fighting spirit shown during all games as the biggest plus in this tournament.

The two sides were close to better results, yet ultimately raised the white flag and were eliminated, with small details making the difference of progressing to the main round and going home.

written by Adrian Costeiu / jh