The crowd in the sold-out Hall XXL, Nantes said farewell to their favourites with standing ovations on Wednesday after France crushed Serbia by 10 goals to book their spot in the EHF EURO 2018 Semi-finals in Paris. Celebrations will reach a new peak in the AccorHotels Arena on Friday if France manage to take the next step towards winning the European title after being crowned world champions last December and claiming the EURO bronze in 2016.
But coach Olivier Krumbholz’s team will be up for a tough challenge against the Netherlands, facing a Dutch team that have overcome the absence of several key players to also reach their second straight EHF EURO Semi-final, after winning silver two years ago.
Netherlands vs France
Friday 14 December, 21:00 CET, live on ehfTV.com
So far, so good for the hosts. France threw off their home tournament with a defeat against Olympic champions Russia two weeks ago and were put to a serious test by Sweden for a 21:21 draw in the main round, but have otherwise been firmly on track to the semi-finals.
“We know we have a lot of pressure on us and I think we take the pressure in a good way,” says left wing Siraba Dembele Pavlovic. “It’s a good feeling because we can play well, we can play bad, and we always have somebody who is supporting us. This gives us really good power.”
What’s next for the host nation?
France have to break a curse as they are into their fourth EHF EURO Semi-final after losing all three previous encounters – in 2002, 2006 and again in 2016.
On the other hand, their opponents know how to win the penultimate match: the Netherlands have appeared in only one EURO Semi-final before, but they were successful at the event two years ago in Sweden.
However, other historical statistics speak in France’s favour, as they lead nine to six in the head-to-head comparison. The Netherlands won the most recent meeting – in the preliminary round of the EHF EURO 2016 – but France had beaten them twice at the Rio Olympic Games just months earlier.
“The team have evolved in the past two years. It’s not only the young players but also the ‘old’ who are in the median age. The team really complement each other and the group is efficient,” French coach Olivier Krumbholz says.
By reaching the semi-finals for the fifth straight time in a major event, the Netherlands have already exceeded their own expectations. Travelling to France, coach Helle Thomsen’s team were not quite sure where they stood, as experienced line players Yvette Broch (retired) and Danick Snelder (back injury) were missing.
To make things worse, centre back Nycke Groot was hit on the head early in the first main round game against Romania and has been on court for less than 10 minutes since.
But the Dutch have been dealing exceptionally well with the setbacks. Although they suffered a huge defeat at the hands of Norway, they have otherwise had a flawless campaign.
“The team has surprised me,” coach Thomsen says. “When we started the training back home in Holland, I started to put a back-position player on the line who had not been a line player before. I have really respect for the girls. We lost by 13 goals against Norway but they stood up the next day. I like girls who can do that.”
In Friday’s match, the defensive performance by both teams will be a key factor as, out of all main round teams, France (118) and the Netherlands (126) have conceded the fewest goals in six games. This is also thanks to their outstanding goalkeepers, with Amandine Leynaud and Laura Glaser starring for France and Tess Wester for the Netherlands.
When it comes to efficiency in attack however, France (67 per cent with 166 goals from 249 attempts) have a clear advantage over the Dutch (57 per cent with 162 from 283).
“Of course, France have the strongest team on paper,” Thomsen says. “But you never know when you start the game. We play seven-against-seven and we play 60 minutes. After that we will see.”