Handball fans in Hungary and the Netherlands witnessed two tasty encounters last March when their national teams met twice in EHF EURO 2018 Qualification. Each side won the away game, with Hungary grabbing top spot in the group.
Fast forward eight months, and the spicy double-header has become a distant memory as both nations meet again to throw off their EHF EURO 2018 campaign in Montbéliard on Saturday at 15:00 CET.
“No, not all,” says Hungary coach Kim Rasmussen when asked if the game can be compared to the two qualifiers from March.
“First of all, this is a championship. Second, both teams are missing some key players. This is a completely new situation,” Rasmussen points out. “What we know is that we can play a tough game against each other. We know that we will have a chance of winning if we bring our energy level to the highest.”
Rasmussen has lately been forced into rebuilding his squad. After star player Anita Görbicz retired from the national team, a series of other key players have been ruled out of the EHF EURO as well. Notable absentees include left backs Zsuzsanna Tomori (injury) and Dora Hornyak (pregnancy).
Fans got a sneak preview of the ‘new’ Hungary last week, when Rasmussen’s side was beaten by fellow EHF EURO participants Norway (19:25), France (18:19) and Denmark (16:23) at the Golden League event in Oslo.
Those matches gave the coach no real clue about the state of his team. Are Hungary ready for the EURO?
“I hope somebody will tell me because I don’t know. This team is completely new, lost two key players the last two weeks,” Rasmussen says. “We played some good, solid games in Norway, but now it is for points. I don’t know how the girls exactly will react.”
Hungary: up for a fight
What Rasmussen does know, however, is that Hungary are ready to battle.
“We go in with a lot of energy, we really fight. We are up against the top team of Holland, they are so experienced, they know each other so well, so it is going to be tough,” the coach says. “But our energy can be good, our concentration, and we will never give up. This is what’s important for me. And if can we do this - these young players, they can play some handball - then we can be very dangerous to play against.
“At the same time we need to take the right decisions,” he adds. “At some point, you don’t win on talent but need to remember the tactics in our game. This is going to be the biggest question: can we make the right decisions?”
If any coach knows how to transform underdogs into winners, it is Rasmussen. The Dane took over at CSM Bucuresti in 2015 with little prospect of achieving huge triumphs, but the Romanian side lifted the Women’s EHF Champions League trophy at the end of that season.
This time, Rasmussen hopes his Hungarian underdogs can stage a surprise.
“Hope is bigger than fear. I know this is a very challenging time with this team,” he says. “Our philosophy, our strategy and our thinking is that we really want to go in and play aggressive and with a lot of energy. When we do this, anything can happen. Energy is the key. If we can bring it out, who knows?”
While Hungary have had to deal with a lot of changes, Netherlands will also look different from the team they were eight months ago.
Back then, the Dutch team included three players who were starring in the Hungarian league. But at the EHF EURO, Nycke Groot is the only player left from this ‘Hungarian’ trio, as Györ’s Yvette Broch (retired) and FTC’s Danick Snelder (back injury) are missing in France.
Captain Snelder’s absence will change Groot’s role within coach Helle Thomson’s side. As a dominant playmaker, Groot has always been a leading force for the Dutch, but in France she will officially be the team’s captain.
“We always want to go for gold, but the question is how realistic it is,” Groot says. “We have lost two of the best players in the world. With Yvette and Danick, there were some playing routines in the team which we will be lacking.”
At first sight, Hungary might look unlucky, having to face arguably the strongest opponent in the group in their first match. But playing Netherlands, the 2016 silver medallists, in their opener before facing Croatia on Monday and Spain two days later could also be an advantage, according to Rasmussen.
“It’s not our do-or-die game,” the coach said. “But imagine you win and can take these two points for the main round then all of a sudden the championship is wide open.”