Olympic champions under pressure as qualification race heats up

PREVIEW: Women's EHF EURO 2018 Qualification continues with a series of double headers that will see table rankings fall into place – and teams come closer to booking their places in France

After a five-month wait, Women’s EHF EURO 2018 Qualification continues with Rounds 3 and 4, which will see a series of double headers – and the possibility of the first places at the final tournament secured.

Round 3 opens with a bang on Wednesday, with 11 matches taking place, before the last three of the round are played on Thursday. Round 4 will be played on Saturday and Sunday.

Norway, Poland, Montenegro, Sweden, Serbia, Romania, Denmark, Spain, Netherlands and Hungary count the maximum four points in their account at the beginning of Round 3, and have the chance to book their spots in France with two victories.

All 14 matches will be streamed live on ehfTV.com. To help you decide which to watch, we have selected five highlights.

Poland vs Montenegro – Wednesday, 21 March, 17:45 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Group 2 leaders Poland and Montenegro meet for the first match of their double header on Wednesday, with both teams level on four points after two victories in the opening rounds. With the maximum points, both sides have the chance to secure their berth in France with two wins in the double header.

Poland and Montenegro have both tasted success in the past. Poland made it to the medal round at two consecutive World Championships, in 2013 and 2015, while Montenegro were crowned champions of the EHF EURO 2012 and took the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

Recently however, neither team have come close to replicating their previous success. Now, both are in a rebuilding phase.

The double header looks to be an interesting, unpredictable battle between two sides featuring established stars such as Jovanka Radicevic (Montenegro) and Kinga Achruk (Poland) alongside young players.

Though a place at the final tournament could be decided between Poland and Montenegro this week, there is no obvious favourite – and the expected close encounters could mean everything is determined in the final qualification rounds.

Montenegro are led by a new coach, Swede Per Johansson, who replaced Dragan Adzic in an unexpected move right before the World Championship 2017 in December.

Serbia vs Sweden – Wednesday, 21 March, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Serbia and Sweden meet for another clash of group leaders – but one that is expected to come with a little more firepower.

Sweden are riding a confident wave following their unprecedented success at the World Championship 2017, where they reached the semi-finals for the first time, ultimately finishing fourth. Serbia ranked ninth at the same championship, after being eliminated by Montenegro in the round of 16 – but not without leaving an impression.

Since the EHF EURO 2016, Serbia changed coach to Ljubomir Obradovic. The change meant several core players crucial to the team’s past success – most notably a silver medal at the World Championship 2013 – returned to the squad, including 2013 World Player of the Year Andrea Lekic.

"I think we are ready for the qualification, but we are up against Serbia – they have a good team now all their stars are back, so of course it will be hard,” says Sweden centre back and EHF Champions League 2015/16 top scorer Isabelle Gullden.

"It will be hard when we play in Serbia, for sure. They have [Andrea] Lekic, they have [Dragana] Cvijic, and they still have a second pivot, [Sladana] Pop-Lazic, who is really good, so I think they look strong.”

Russia vs Romania – Wednesday, 21 March, 16:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

It has been a rough six months for 2016 Olympic champions Russia. Not only did the team record a shock loss against Austria in qualification Round 2 at the end of September, but in December, they were knocked out of the running for the world title with a devastating one-sided loss to Norway (34:17).

Russia enter Round 3 with only two points in their account and some serious pressure to lift their game. But led by the likes of Rio 2016 MVP Anna Vyakhireva, Russia can be relied on to do just that – and present a strong threat to Romania, particularly playing at home.

Romania also had a disappointing World Championship campaign, with a surprise defeat to Czech Republic sending them home after the round of 16. As they had won the bronze medal at the previous World Championship, the early elimination was a big upset.

Romania bring four points with them to Togliatti, and while both teams have clear motivation to prove they belong at the final tournament in France, the visitors will clearly face a challenging task taking a win in Russia.

Czech Republic vs Denmark – Wednesday, 21 March, 17:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

It seems the only way is up for Czech Republic. At the EHF EURO 2016, the team recorded their highest ranking in 14 years, finishing 10th. At the World Championship 2017, they went from being on the cusp of a breakthrough result to pulling off a big upset when they eliminated 2015 bronze medallists Romania with a masterful performance in the round of 16.

Czech Republic’s squad is one to watch, counting many individuals making a name for themselves in their club competitions. Most notable is back Iveta Luzumova, who finished the EHF Champions League Main Round as the top scorer of the competition. She leads the race by a huge 22 goals, tallying 105 to Cristina Neagu’s 83.

It will be interesting to see how Czech Republic fare against Group 5 leaders Denmark (four points) – a team capable of defeating the toughest opponents on their best day, particularly if goalkeeper Sandra Toft is in peak form.

Playing at home however, it seems Czech Republic could have an edge as they aim to move up to five points and leapfrog the Scandinavian side on the table.

Lithuania vs Turkey – Thursday, 22 March, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Lithuania were one of the biggest surprise sides in the opening rounds of the qualification phase, beginning their campaign with a 26:26 draw against Germany before recording a loss to Spain. Though the final deficit against Spain was a clear seven goals, the result against Germany shows Lithuania are not to be underestimated.

While group leaders Germany and Spain battle it out in their double header this week, they will have half an eye on Lithuania. Lithuania could reach one of the top two positions in the group if they manage two victories versus Turkey, which would throw Group 6 wide open ahead of the last qualification rounds.

Lithuania enter Round 3 with one point gained from the draw against Germany, while Turkey have not collected any points so far.

If Lithuania make it to the final tournament in France, they will end a 22-year wait for their second participation.

Remaining matches in Round 3:

Croatia vs Norway – Wednesday, 21 March, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Switzerland vs Ukraine – Wednesday, 21 March, 20:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Italy vs Slovakia – Wednesday, 21 March, 18:15 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Faroe Islands vs FYR Macedonia – Wednesday, 21 March, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Portugal vs Austria – Thursday, 22 March, 21:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Iceland vs Slovenia – Wednesday, 21 March, 19:30 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Germany vs Spain – Wednesday, 21 March, 19:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

Kosovo vs Belarus – Wednesday, 21 March, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com
Hungary vs Netherlands – Thursday, 22 March, 18:00 hrs local time, live on ehfTV.com

written by Courtney Gahan / ew