FEATURE: Dragan Gajič came close to reaching the VELUX EHF FINAL4 before. Now the Slovenian right wing gets another chance with Veszprém as they face one of Gajič’s former clubs, Montpellier, in the quarter-finals.
Gajič has mixed emotions ahead of Montpellier quarter-final
Veszprém’s right wing sharp shooter Dragan Gajič dreams about finally playing at the VELUX EHF FINAL4.
Gajič rejoined then defending champions Celje Pivovarna Laško in 2004 and reached the semi-finals in his first season back, but that was several years before the FINAL4 format was introduced. In the two-game semi-final, Celje were edged by the eventual winners, Barcelona.
But a weekend at the LANXESS Arena in Cologne would be a different story.
One goal away
And he has already been so close. With Montpellier seven years ago, Gajič was only one goal away from a coveted FINAL4 spot.
After so many years on top level, Gajič knows that those chances do not come along too often. It only increases his ambition to get to Cologne this season. Now with Veszprém, the Slovanian right wing faces his former club Montpellier in the quarter-final, with the first leg taking place on home court on Saturday.
“It certainly is interesting. It will be a special game,” Gajič tells ehfCL.com. “The minute the EHF decided to finish the season with a FINAL4 tournament, I have dreamed and craved to reach this event. And now I have to beat my former teammates.”
Though Gajič is in his 16th Champions League season, it will be only his first game against Montpellier, the club he scored 238 goals for in five seasons.
'No mercy of course'
While Gajič obviously has fond memories of his five-year stint with the French club, there will be “no mercy of course” when he meets them Saturday, or next weekend for the return leg in Montpellier.
“Au contraire - if I use my French - it is even greater motivation against Montpellier, where I spent probably the best five years of my career,” Gajič says. “It will be interesting to try to fulfil my dreams against Montpellier. I can’t wait for this match.”
The dreams of Dragan Gajič are also the dreams of the other Veszprém players and their fans. The Hungarian champions were centimetres away of the winners’ trophy in the last two seasons but failed to get their hands on it both times.
Now, Gajič would love to put tears of joy on the cheeks of the Veszprém fans.
“I am like that. I cannot play great without emotions,” the right wing says, who draws comparisons between Montpellier and Veszprém. “We were all really close with the people in the club, with the fans around us in Montpellier. And every single game in Veszprém, the same feelings come up, with my teammates, with everybody in and around the club.”
Experience of playing a former club
Gajič has had the experience of playing a former club before as he met Celje during his time at Montpellier.
“So I have some emotional experience of that kind already,” he says. “I can imagine how it is to play against your former club, but every single game is different and I have to prepare well.”
While usually being the leading goal scorer at Celje and Montpellier, things changed for Gajič when he joined Veszprém in the offseason. At the Hungarian powerhouse, even he must share goals and playing minutes.
“In the beginning I had some problems adapting in Veszprém. I was used to playing 50 to 60 minutes every game for more than 10 years,” says Gajič, whose total for the Champions League season so far is 45 goals. “It was a new experience, for sure, but Veszprém have a different team philosophy.”
Happy to be sharing time on court
Meanwhile, Gajič says he feels “great” and he is happy to be sharing time on the court with a fellow Slovenian, Gašper Marguč.
“We talk a lot. We work with each other well. You have to look at the whole picture of a playing position. I think we play as one,” Gajič says. “Of course I would like some more playing time sometimes, but the team come first. One half for each of us is just as fine.”
Gajič publicly showed his true affection for Montpellier when the French side kicked out defending champions Kielce in the Last 16 - probably not yet thinking about the fact that he would have to play them for a FINAL4 ticket.
“It will be much harder for me in the second leg. It is better from this point of view that the first game is in Veszprém,” Gajič says. “I'm sure that I will get a warm reception from the fans in Montpellier. We will be playing in the older hall (Palais des Sports René Bougnol), which is something special, too. We didn't have the time to say goodbye properly as everything went so quickly in June, so the fans are happy that I return and I'm happy to see them again.”
High on confidence
It promises to be an interesting duel. Veszprém are the favourites on paper, but Montpellier are high on confidence following their win over the title holders.
The season has been long, and it looks like Veszprém with their huge roster have been perfectly prepared for it.
“The first part of the season was really difficult but we still reached the third position in an extremely tough Champions League group,” Gajič says. “The second part of the season is better. We still haven't reached our peak. We still have some bad days and we cannot afford one in the quarterfinals, for sure.”
Gajič is wary of Montpellier’s strength to take advantage of an opponent’s slip-up.
“If you watched the games between Montpellier and Kielce, you noticed that the French team grabbed every single bad minute of the defending champions with both hands,” Gajič analyses. “Kielce had about 10 bad minutes in each game and they lost both matches. So we need consistency. That would make it much easier for us against Montpellier.”
TEXT: Uroš Volk / ew
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