So who had HSV Hamburg for the title then? Not just when the Final 4 was drawn and it was clear they would have to beat the big beasts of THW Kiel and FC Barcelona but back in September when they only just edged the Wild Card tournament final (coming from behind to beat hosts Saint-Raphaël Var) and then pitched into a group that included Flensburg-Handewitt, Montpellier, Reale Ademar Leon and Chekhovskiye Medvedi. But, despite all those obstacles, HSV have earned the right to be called European champions.
The Velux Final 4 had a bit of everything in the end. It had the relatively easy semi-final that showcased the grit of the victors: Barcelona on the back of 8 from Rutenka always had the edge over the Poles of Vive Targi Kielce. It had the semi-final with the result you didn’t see coming: Domagoj Duvnjak inspiring his Hamburg team-mates with 11 goals and Hamburg emerging victorious from a goal-fest. The Zebras almost unable to work out what had gone wrong. And then, in the third-place play off it had a confusion of names Kiel/Kielce (just me?) and the underdogs almost but not quite throwing away a 9 goal lead but hanging on – Kielce thus finished 3rd, Kiel 4th. And the main drama still to come.
If Hamburg’s semi-final had been a goal-fest the first half of the final was a defence-fest and one that looked like going the way of the Catalans. But with the first five minutes of the second half having more drama than the entire first the game swung. Twice Barcelona were pegged back only to take the lead again. Across the court were contests – not least in the goal. Sterbik in the Barcelona goal proved almost impossible to fire past whereas the athletic Bitter for Hamburg found his blocking limbs. Heading into the final stages Hamburg somehow had a four goal lead with a fast break that could have made it five … but Jansen missed and within the blink of an eye (it seemed) we were all tied. With the score at 25:24 Rutenka had a shot saved by Bitter but the rebound went straight back to him rather than the defence and making no mistake a second time we moved to extra time.
This was the first final to be decided in extra time and by now the crowd had discovered its German patriotism. I doubt there was a neutral across Europe wanting any result other than a victory for Martin Schwalb’s men. All were to get their wish but not before ten minutes of tension were played out.
As always seems to happen the scoring slowed. Neither side wanting to allow the other to dictate the pace. Hamburg caught a break when awarded a 7m penalty for a phantom foul and when Lindberg (the tournament’s top scorer) hit it to put HSV in front that was that. Just the small matter of a Bitter save, a Barcelona steal, a shot over the top and a final attempt after time up to cram into the remaining 120 seconds. Hamburg had earned the right to cling on. Their joy was unconfined, Barcelona looked shell-shocked.
“So much drama …” said ehftv commentator Tom O’Brainnagain. He was right. This was a final that reminded you of the straightforward magnificence of sport in general and the brutal beauty of handball in particular.
Want to see it again? Oh, go on …
And so after a weekend of some predictability and some drama the final entrants into this season’s EHF Champions League are known: the long road to Cologne and the Velux Final 4 can begin.
The three qualification tournaments didn’t produce close finals: HCM Constanta (Romania), HC Metalurg (Macedonia) and RK Partizan (Serbia) saw off their opponents by an average of ten points. The fourth event, the Wild Card Tournment, did produce a decent contest though as home side Saint-Raphaël Var (France) were pipped in extra time by HSV Hamburg of the Bundesliga. It was tough on the French side, in particular their goalkeeper Yohann Ploquin, who blocked well at crucial moments only to see his outfielders not drill home the advantage. Saint-Raphaël Var had a lead of up to 4 at various points in the second half of normal play and Hamburg were only actually in the lead for the final seconds – taking the game 32:31 with Blazenko Lackovic scoring the winner with his only goal of the match.
There are full details of the groups here and British Eurosport 2 should be showing some games live from late September, in addition to which you should be able to find regular live matches at the EHF’s own site and on Bet365.