GROUP D PREVIEW: Motor Zaporozhye host Chekhovskie Medvedi in the group phase opener on Thursday, with two more interesting matches following at the weekend
Group phase 2017/18 gets underway in Ukraine
Round 1 in Group D is divided into three days. After the throw-off to the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase in Kharkiv, Montpellier HB host HC Metalurg on Saturday and the winners of the qualification event, Sporting CP, travel to Besiktas Mogaz HT on Sunday.
HC Motor Zaporozhye (UKR) vs Chekhovskie Medvedi (RUS)
Vladimir Maximov’s team travelled to Kharkiv by train to face highly favoured Motor Zaporozhye in the teams’ first meeting in a European competition.
Medvedi have undergone major changes over the summer with important players like Dmitri Kovalev and Alexander Chernoivanov having left for Spartak Moscow.
Motor also face a new challenge after they made few changes themselves over the summer. New coach Patryk Rombel, at 34 the second youngest in the Champions League, aims to succeed in his first major foreign spell.
The new singings Maxim Babichev and Pawel Paczkowski give Motor extra quality and propel the Ukrainian team into one of the favourites in Group D.
The match will be special for Sergey Shelmenko and Igor Soroka, who played for Medvedi. Overall there are four Russian national team players in the Ukrainian side.
Whilst Motor are yet to start the domestic campaign following their Super Cup win in August, Chekhovskie Medvedi have already started the season in Russia with a win and a draw in the opening two rounds following a Super Cup win over Krasnodar.
Montpellier HB (FRA) vs HC Metalurg (MKD)
The longest serving coach in the Champions League, Patrice Canayer, is in his 23rd season with Montpellier. The French powerhouse were the first team to make the quarter-finals from Groups C and D last season, and the ambitions have not decreased despite the departure of last season’s star player Jure Dolenec.
Montpellier host the ambitious young team of HC Metalurg Skopje, with another coaching legend in charge, Lino Cervar. The Croat face the pressure of leading both Metalurg and the Croatian national team in the build-up to the EHF EURO 2018 on home court.
Metalurg will try to further improve from what was a successful Champions League campaign last season, when Filip Taleski’s outstanding performances in the Champions League Group Phase earned him a transfer to Rhein-Neckar Löwen. Probably the powerful Zarko Peshevski could pick up that role this season.
The Macedonian team might have the advantage of having played more competitive handball already this season as the SEHA League - one of the three competitions they are involved in - has started earlier than the French domestic league.
When both teams met last season, Montpellier left the court as convincing winners twice.
Besiktas Mogaz HT (TUR) v Sporting CP (POR)
In their first of several long journeys this group phase, Sporting are travelling to Turkey in the group’s concluding match of Round 1.
Hugo Canela’s team have qualified for the group phase for the second time after their debut in 2001/02. Sporting are in a winning mood after routing their domestic league opponents AC Fafe and Xico Andebol follwing their qualification for the Champions League Group Phase.
Canela, however, is staying modest yet confident and believes his side are further improving as the season starts.
Besiktas are considered as the dark horse of the group and if they are to compete with Montpellier and Motor for one of the top two spots, they need to win matches like those on Sunday.
Coach Müfit Arin has to spread responsibility across a number of players following the departure of club legend Ibrahim Demir.
The two sides have never met before in European competitions.
TEXT: Tomas Cuncik / ew
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