Horvat: "Last 16 is great, everything else is a bonus"
Usually a strong starter into a season, HC PPD Zagreb have this year struggled to find their stride in the VELUX EHF Champions League.
After four wins, a draw and nine defeats, it lasted until the final match in Group B last Sunday before the Croatian champions were assured to be among the 14 teams advancing to the next phase of the competition.
A quarter-finalist in the past two seasons, Zagreb needed a helping hand from HC Vardar. Their win over Kristianstad gave Zagreb a ticket for the Last 16, where last year's finalists Veszprém will be waiting.
"We needed more time but we didn't have it"
Looking back to their tough group phase, captain Zlatko Horvat tells ehfCL.com that Zagreb suffered from the aftermath of the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Croatia reached the quarter-finals.
"Many of us had just returned from the Olympic Games, including coach Veselin Vujović at the time, so that was our biggest problem," Horvat says. "It was really hard for everyone to fit in. We needed more time but we didn't have it."
Right wing Horvat, who has spent whole his career at the club in Croatia's capital, is one of the most experienced players on the squad, together with Ivan Stevanović and the Valčić brothers, Josip and Tonci.
Even after line player Igor Vori returned to Zagreb following many years in Germany and France, the Croatian champions are still a quite young team, that went through many changes after their great 2015/16 season.
They lost Filip Ivić (KS Vive Tauron Kielce), Luka Stepančić (PSG), Lovro Mihić (SPR Wisla Plock), Sandro Obranović (MOL Pick Szeged), Luka Raković (Benfica), Stanko Sabljić (HC Erlangen) and Antonijo Kovačević (RK Dubrava), and saw Domagoj Pavlović and Luka Šebetić getting sidelined with injuries.
"The most important thing is that we managed to get back on track and win important points. Mainly in the match against Vardar, where we did a good job and booked the first two points," says Horvat, adding Zagreb was "unlucky at some moments" which cost them points against Kielce and Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
"We played really good in the last part of the group stage. We won when we needed to and that is the most important thing for us," Horvat says.
"Changing the coach is always some kind of a shock therapy"
The replacement of coach Vujović with Silvio Ivandija in October after four winless rounds helped Zagreb to get back on track. In their first match under Ivandija, they beat eventual group winners Vardar.
"Changing the coach is always some kind of shock therapy. With new coach Ivandija we were a bit more relaxed in our game and had more freedom. However, there should be a balance between freedom and good tactics," Horvat says.
In the Last 16, another challenge awaits Zagreb as they will take on Veszprém, an opponent they know very well from both the Champions League as well as the SEHA League.
"We have played many times against each other so they know everything about us, and vice versa. All matches, no matter if they were played in Zagreb or Veszprém, were very tight and exciting,” Horvat says. “We are convinced that we can qualify for the quarter-finals. We know that it is going to be tough, but we believe it is possible.”
Reaching the Last 16 has been a great achievement
Like Zagreb in the beginning of the season, Veszprém are having some struggles of their own.
“Veszprém do not have the momentum like they had last year, and that is where I maybe see our chances. You can tell they are still searching for the right form,” Horvat says.
Even if Zagreb were to fail in the Last 16, their season would still be far from over. The semi-finals of the SEHA League, the Croatian cup and the play-offs of the domestic championship are all coming up as well.
Reaching the VELUX EHF Champions League Last 16 has been a great achievement, according to Horvat.
"I think we did a great thing this year. Because of our bad start we got ourselves into trouble but turned everything around," the captain says. "Teams that were in front of us had an advantage, in points and psychologically. But we jumped over all those things and qualified for the Last 16, which is a great achievement. Everything else will be a bonus."
TEXT: Jelena Bagarić / ew