Six takeaways from the intriguing play-offs
Over the last two weeks, the 14 games in the DELO EHF Champions League play-offs delivered clear wins for the favourites but also nail-biting games, where the winners were only decided in the dying seconds of the second leg.
Ultimately, eight teams have progressed to the quarter-final, which will be played in the first two weeks of April, the last stop before the DELO EHF FINAL4 in Budapest on 29/30 May.
Before we turn our attention to the quarter-final, let’s summarise what piqued our interest the most during the play-offs.
France and Russia with two teams in quarter-final
While the play-offs had an all-Romanian clash - between CSM Bucuresti and SCM Ramnicu Valcea - the quarter-final will also see two teams from the same nation go head-to-head: an all-out battle between the top French sides, Brest Bretagne Handball and Metz Handball.
Brest progressed following a clear 63:54 aggregate win over Team Esbjerg, while Metz were awarded two 10:0 wins after their double-header with BV Borussia 09 Dortmund had to be called off last weekend.
Since the beginning of their newly minted rivalry 10 years ago, Brest have won the French national championship once, as opposed to Metz’s seven.
Their latest clash was a 30:19 drubbing by Brest in a league game on 6 January, but Metz clearly won both games (32:21 and 39:26) when they met in the EHF Champions League main round in 2018/19.
Another country, Russia, has two teams in the quarter-final, though they won’t play each other: Rostov-Don and CSKA.
Teams from Romania (CSM Bucuresti), Montenegro (Buducnost), Hungary (Györi Audi ETO KC) and Norway (Vipers Kristiansand) complete the quarter-final line-up.
More goals per match than in group phase
A total of 782 goals were scored in the 14 play-offs games played over the last two weekends, an average of 55.85 goals per game, slightly higher than the 54.94-goal average from the group phase.
Rostov-Don (71 goals) and Györ (69) were the top-two attacking teams in the play-offs, while CSM’s Cristina Neagu was the most productive player with 24 goals over two games.
HC Podravka Vegeta (44 goals) and RK Krim Mercator (46) scored the lowest amount of goals - though the Slovenian team came up only just short of CSKA, who needed just 47 goals to reach the quarter-final.
Gros and Neagu reach 100-goal mark
The play-offs saw two players reach the 100-goal milestone for the season. Cristina Neagu was the first to hit the mark as her 11 goals in the second leg against Valcea on Saturday raised her season tally to exactly 100 goals.
Ana Gros followed on Sunday, netting seven times for Brest against Esbjerg to increase her total to 104 goals.
Neagu has been top scorer of the EHF Champions League twice in the past: in 2014/15 with 102 goals for Buducnost and in 2017/18 with 110 goals for CSM. For Gros it would be the first time to win this award.
Neagu has been the most consistent scorer in the competition so far: she reached 100 in 11 games, while Gros got to 104 in 15 matches.
Rostov’s flirtation with new record
Rostov’s drubbing of Podravka (71:44) marked the second-biggest winning margin in a knockout match in the EHF Champions League since 2000.
The record is still held by reigning champions Györ, who defeated domestic rivals FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria 71:41 on aggregate in the 2015/16 quarter-final.
Györ themselves also impressed this time with a 69:48 aggregate win over SG BBM Bietigheim, the third-biggest margin over the past two decades, tying the 21-goal difference between Larvik HK and Thüringer HC (66:45) in the 2014/15 quarter-final.
Top-three teams from group phase advance
The final standings of the group phase turned out to be a good indicator for the strength of the teams. All teams that finished in the top three of group A or group B have now advanced to the quarter-final.
However, both fourth-ranked teams, playing against the fifth-ranked teams from the other group, were less fortunate as FTC and Odense stumbled.
FTC failed to make up a 22:19 first-leg loss to Buducnost in Saturday’s Match of the Week (29:28), while Odense squandered a one-goal lead from the first leg against Vipers (36:35) as the Danish side went down 30:26 on home court Sunday.
Few fresh faces in the quarter-final
Fresh faces find it hard to progress to the business end of the EHF Champions League - with only one team earning their first ever quarter-final berth.
Even more so, CSKA are playing their first-ever season in the competition.
The Moscow-based team want to go all the way to Budapest in their maiden season in Europe’s top competition.
Following only their second loss of the season in the first leg against Krim, the Russian side just sneaked a 47:46 aggregate win to keep their hopes alive to become the third Russian side to appear at the EHF FINAL4, after Dinamo Volgograd and Rostov-Don.