Two victories, one defeat - this is the outcome for three ex-Yugoslavia teams in their opening games of the Women's EHF EURO 2018 qualification on Thursday. Serbia had a walk in the park against the Faroe Islands, Montenegro were lucky to get the better of Slovakia, and FYR Macedonia were no match for Sweden.
Elsewhere, Portugal stood extremely strong away in Russia, and were equal with the Olympic champions for more than 40 minutes. The final result of 32:25 does not reflect their effort.
Qualification continues, with round 2 of the road to France scheduled with one match on Saturday and 13 on Sunday.
A strong defence and plenty of goals from the back court - 15 in total from the duo of Djurdjina Jaukovic (8) and Milena Raicevic (7) - were the keys to a close win for the rejuvenated Montenegrin team. Nearly all statistics were equal at the end of a match that saw the host lead for almost all of the time, without ever being able to truly distance their opponent.
Slovakia had problems scoring against the combative Balkan defenders. In the final stages, Montenegro had the chance to seal the deal, but always failed in attack. Both teams registered an exceptionally high 13 turnovers each. Finally, a series of saves from goalkeeper Alma Hasanic made the difference. The best Slovakian scorer was Monika Rajnohova, with four goals.
Thursday was a historic day for handball on the Faroe Islands - despite this clear defeat. After winning the qualification tournament of stage 1, by beating Greece and Finland, the encounter in Serbia was the first ever match of a Faroese female senior team in the final EURO qualification stage.
As expected, the visitors were taught a lesson by the physically stronger and internationally more experienced Serbs, but in the end the 16 goals was not the biggest gap in the first qualification round - Italy lost 40:13 against Poland, Kosovo were defeated 37:12 to Hungary, and Turkey were beaten 35:16 by Spain. To score 20 goals was impressive too.
More than the defeat, the Faroe Islands were hit by a severe injury to Marjun Falkvard, who clashed with a Serbian defender in the middle of the second half. Serbia were fully dominant throughout the match, and their win was never in doubt. So much so, that they could save some energy for the much harder duel at FYR Macedonia on Sunday. The top scorers against the Faroe Islands was Katarina Krpez-Szlezak, with seven goals.Sweden vs FYR Macedonia 38:26 (18:13)
The star-studded Swedish side were better in all departments against the young Macedonians, who fought well but were chanceless in Lund. The hosts scored from all positions and as usual their main weapon was counter-attacks from the likes of top scorers Nathalie Hagman (8 goals) and Louise Sand (6). After 20 minutes, the margin was increased to seven goals already, at 13:6, and then was constantly between five and seven goals until the final stages. It took until minute 57, when Emma Ekenman-Ferris netted to make it 35:25, for Sweden's lead to reach double figures in a truly one-sided match. The best scorer for FYR Macedonia was Elena Gjeorgjievska, with nine goals.
Two years ago, Portugal were demolished 39:19 by Russia in a EURO 2016 qualifier in Russia. This time the team of head coach Ulisses Pereira was well-prepared to face the Olympic champions. Thanks to an extraordinary performance of goalkeeper Isabel Gois, and also due to their patience in attack against the powerful Russian defensive wall, Portugal were on equal terms until minute 37, when the score was 17:17. Thanks to a spectacular kung-fu goal by Mariana Lopes, the visitors even took a 14:13 advance to the dressing room at half-time.
Russian coach Evgeny Trefilov was angry, but his players then took the advantage of their better fitness. As Portugal lacked power and concentration, Russia forged ahead to 21:18 within only four minutes of the restart, then went on to decide the match in their favour when Anna Kochetova netted to make it 28:22 from a penalty.