Romania have to overcome the absence of star player Cristina Neagu when they take on Russia for a place in Sunday’s final of EHF EURO 2018.
In Romania’s last main-round match, against Hungary, the star player tore her right-knee ACL and had to end her season prematurely.
It won’t make the task any easier for coach Ambros Martin’s side, facing one the best-balanced teams of the competition in Russia for the first semi-final on Friday.
Russia vs Romania
Friday 12 December, 17:30 CET, live on ehfTV.com
The Romanian players had tears in their eyes, regardless of what they had nearly accomplished. The semi-final berth was virtually in their hands, but all they could think about was their captain.
Neagu had gone down in the 52nd minute of the game against Hungary and immediately clutched her knee. Her screams of pain left the whole arena mute, as everybody was fearing the worst.
A MRI on Thursday morning confirmed a torn ACL in her right knee, a season-ending injury for the 30-year old Romanian star. It is the second time this has happened to Neagu, after suffering the same kind of injury to her left knee in 2012.
“I have a lot of thoughts in my mind right now, but all I can do now is to be positive and go on. I will stay with the Romanian team for the final weekend in Paris. My dream lives through them now,” said Neagu.
Romania will surely have their work cut out now, with Neagu having a direct hand in 67 of the 171 goals scored by coach Martin’s side at the EHF EURO, scoring 44 and recording 23 assists over the course of the first six games.
Moreover, Neagu was by far the most used player in the EHF EURO 2018, being on court for 322 of the 360 minutes played by Romania in the tournament.
“It will be very difficult to play without Cristina, but this is an extra motivation for the whole team. She did very good with the team and she gave her life to this,” Martin said.
Statistics may be helpful to analyse games, but Neagu’s impact was transcendent as a leader and as a captain.
“Now we will surely play for her, but it will be very difficult,” said a teary-eyed Crina-Elena Pintea after Romania’s loss against Hungary.
Romania earned a semi-final berth at the EHF EURO for the third time. They finished fourth in 2000 and won the bronze medal in 2010.
The Romanian side will become only the sixth team in history to reach the 2,000-goal mark in EHF EURO history when they score the 12th goal against Russia.
The Olympic champions may have lost two of their six games – as have Romania – but their hope of their first ever EHF EURO title is still intact.
The two teams have met six times in the EHF EURO, with Russia taking three wins and Romania two, with a game ending in a draw.
A B-team of Romania won a friendly game (25:24) against Russia at the Carpathian Trophy just three weeks ago, but Russia coach Evgenii Trefilov also left stars like Anna Vyakhireva, Daria Dmitrieva and Polina Kuznetsova out of his squad.
“The Romanian team is full of all-stars, they are all very good. We know that they have lost their star, but they will do the best to win the game,” said Trefilov.
Russia’s playing style looks different from a decade ago, when they relied on fire power and strength, while speed and agility are oozing from Trefilov’s team in 2018.
Their scoring is balanced, with four players each netting at least 20 times, and no one more than 26, with left wing Daria Samokhina being Russia’s top scorer.
But Romania coach Martin also has an ace up his sleeve: he plies his trade at club level for Rostov-Don, the Russian champions. Rostov have eight players in the Russian roster so Ambros could know a thing or two about stopping them.