Laying out the path towards Hungary-Slovakia 2022
The road to the Men’s EHF EURO 2022 in Hungary and Slovakia became a lot clearer, for better or worse, for the 32 teams set to battle for 20 remaining spots at the final tournament.
While a few teams now feel confident that they will join the host nations plus 2020 finalists Spain and Croatia at the championship, the future for many others remains uncertain after the eight qualification groups were drawn.
Here are some of my reflections following Tuesday’s draw event.
Tight at the top
Group 3, featuring Czech Republic, Russia, Ukraine and Faroe Islands, appears to be the most wide-open of the eight groups.
The top three seeds have shown major fluctuations in form in recent years, displaying the capability for impressive and underwhelming performances in equal measure.
Russia and Ukraine dropped out of EHF EURO 2020 without a win and while the Czechs came through arguably the softest preliminary round group, they finished bottom in the main round.
Then we throw Faroe Islands into the mix, who came within an inch of beating Ukraine in qualification last year and it would not surprise me if they snatched a point or two in this group.
A close second in this category is group 4, where the evenly-matched Iceland and Portugal will be challenged by the two sides which missed out on qualification for 2020 by the narrowest of margins – Lithuania and Israel.
Dream group for the top seeds
Two recently appointed national team coaches will be delighted with the draw handed to them.
In group 1, France are the overwhelming favourites to top the pile, despite a poor showing in January.
New head coach Guillaume Gille will be able to make good use of the qualifiers against Serbia, Belgium and Greece to test his squad and develop the style of play he desires.
Germany’s new hire Alfred Gislason must also be thrilled with his opponents in group 2. Austria and Bosnia Herzegovina are certain to give his side a stern test away from home, but it would be no surprise if they claim maximum points against them as well as bottom seed Estonia.
The top four third-placed teams will qualify for the big dance in January 2022, which opens the door for some surprise candidates.
I previously mentioned Lithuania and Israel in group 4. Both displayed their potential to take points off higher ranked teams in the last campaign: Israel beat Poland and Lithuania managed a draw in Portugal. They will fancy their chances at home against the top two sides.
Italy’s only EHF EURO appearance was the one they hosted in 1998, but if they can rediscover the form which saw them beat Slovakia home and away last year, they could well be on their way back there in 2022, with Belarus and Latvia their targeted opponents in group 6.
It has been an even longer wait for Romania, who last played in 1996, but they will see something worth fighting for in group 8.
In a group featuring Sweden, Montenegro and Kosovo, you get the feeling that points will be claimed by the home team on many occasions and with Romania’s clubs making strides recently, it may be time for the national team to follow suit.
Seven of the 32 contenders have never reached an EHF EURO final tournament before, could that all change over the next 12 months?
Belgium’s elevation to Pot 3 has given them a real opportunity. If they can get the better of Greece, then their sights will be firmly set on Serbia, who they managed to draw against away from home in the 2020 qualifiers.
Greece themselves were just one win away from qualifying in 2020 and will also feel capable of springing a surprise or two.
Group 8’s lowest seed Kosovo displayed their home strength with victory over Israel and a draw against Poland last year and their targeted group 8 opponents, Montenegro and Romania, are certainly within reach on a good day.
Photo © 2020 Stanko Gruden / kolektiff