The hottest topic headlining 2020/21? Dika Mem
The EHF Champions League 2020/21 saw a season of thrills and unprecedented challenges. But what stood out above all in the drama-packed months in 2020/21?
We asked four of our journalists — Björn Pazen, Kevin Domas, Adrian Costeiu and Danijela Vekic (nee Lemaic) — to weigh in with their opinions on the recently culminated season and what is to come.
Men’s team of the season
Björn Pazen: Barça. Never before in the Champions League was a team so dominant. When you win all matches, there is no question about the season winners. They learnt from their defeat in the final in December.
Kevin Domas: Nantes. No one thought they would make it this far in the Champions League, but they reached the EHF FINAL4, beating Kielce, Veszprém and Kiel along the way, as well as bringing some young players to light.
Adrian Costeiu: Barça: While Nantes might have been the surprise package this season, winning the EHF Champions League Men without dropping a game and winning all 20 of them should be enough to grant them this unofficial title. This is an all-time great performance, which should be remembered in the next decades. Barca just became the standard in the premium European competition.
Danijela Vekic: Aalborg. The Danish team gave real insight into what the word team means —where everyone gives their best for overcoming the biggest obstacles.
Men’s player of the season
Björn Pazen: Dika Mem – the young Frenchman made a huge step in development and he was one core expert for Barcelona’s goal record.
Kevin Domas: Dika Mem. The French left hander has turned into a completely different player this season, playing almost every game in its entirety and finishing second in the top scorer ranking.
Adrian Costeiu: Dika Mem — there are a plethora of players who left their mark over this season, therefore, this is purely based on a personal opinion. Barça are playing like a well-oiled machine, always did and probably always will, with every piece as important as the other. But Mem really matured this season and was crucial in attack for the Spanish powerhouse, scoring 93 goals, for a team that swept their opponents. Dividing playing time between all the options at his disposal was one of Pascual’s remarkable achievements, but having an in-form Mem really made all the difference this season.
Danijela Vekic: Dika Mem. The right back was on his top performance level the whole season and it was really great to watch him play.
Women’s team of the season
Björn Pazen: Vipers. If you have no home matches since October, win twice at Rostov and then play an extraordinary EHF FINAL4 you are a deserved winner. They climbed over all obstacles.
Kevin Domas: Brest. After years of looking promising, the French side finally delivered, reaching the final of the DELO EHF FINAL4. Vipers might have deserved their title, but Brest were the biggest surprise of the season.
Adrian Costeiu: Brest Bretagne Handball. Vipers won the trophy, but Brest were mightily impressive themselves in the DELO EHF Champions League. It was also a difficult season for them, having their coach and key players like Ana Gros and Isabelle Gullden leaving, therefore credit where credit is due for the French side.
Danijela Vekic: Brest Bretagne. The French team stepped up and just finished their most successful season ever, winning the French championship, the French Cup and the silver medal in the EHF Champions League.
Women’s player of the season
Björn Pazen: Ana Gros. Vipers’ saw a team success, but Gros steered Brest Bretagne almost on her own.
Kevin Domas: Henny Reistad. At 22, the Norwegian player shows so much maturity you might wonder what’s the next thing for her. She has the potential to be the best player in the world in a few years.
Adrian Costeiu: Henny Reistad – who else? Her last season for Vipers (she will join Team Esbjerg this summer) has been a rollercoaster, but Reistad really heated up in the business end, finishing the competition with 88 goals — 47 of which came in the last six games. Her production was unprecedented, bettering her tally from 2019/20, when she scored 30 goals, but the confidence she exuded looked unshakeable, singlehandedly lifting Vipers to a contender status. Without Reistad, Vipers would not have become the second Norwegian team to win the DELO EHF Champions League.
Danijela Vekic: Ana Gros. The amazing player finally reached her first EHF FINAL4 and, as she’s saying her final goodbye to France, she topped the top scorer list with 135 goals.
Match of the season
Björn Pazen: I have two – and both were semi-finals: Brest versus Györ due to the thrill. And Aalborg versus PSG, as this was a Cologne classic — underdogs turning the tide against favourites.
Kevin Domas: PSG versus Aalborg, semi-final of the Champions League Men. Crazy scenario, crazy outcome — in a nutshell, everything we loved about Aalborg this season.
Adrian Costeiu: two second-leg encounters: Aalborg versus FC Porto, 27:24 in the play-offs, and SG Flensburg-Handewitt versus Aalborg Håndbold, 33:29 in the quarter-final.
Underdogs at their peak. What’s not to love about those games? In the play-off phase of the EHF Champions League Men, Aalborg lost their first game against Porto, 29:32, only to bounce back in the second leg to take a 27:24 win — enough to see them through on away goals. With four minutes to go, the Danish side only had the slightest of leads, 24:23.
Aalborg also produced another action-packed game against Flensburg. Leading 10:7 after 15 minutes after they had won the first leg 26:21, it looked like the Danish side were obviously in the EHF FINAL4. Flensburg bounced back, took a six-goal lead in the 46th minute, 26:20, but Felix Claar led his team with seven goals to bring Aalborg back into the mix. Eventually, Flensburg won 33:29, but lost 54:55 on aggregate.
Danijela Vekic: The quarter-final match between Nantes and Veszprém played in Hungary. The match was played with full stands, the atmosphere at the top and a great performance by both teams.
Favourite goal of the season
Björn Pazen: All over 500 from Barca.
Kevin Domas: Valero Rivera versus Barcelona in round 12. The top scorer with one of the most incredible goals of the season. Absolutely no angle, but a spin of the wrist and the goalkeeper was fooled.
Adrian Costeiu: Each and every one of Cristina Neagu’s 115 goals this season.
Danijela Vekic: There were a lot of great goals, but I will be little subjective and say Zagreb’s Filip Peric against Veszprém. While falling down, he scored behind his back in his first EHF Champions League match ever. It’s no surprise it was voted best goal of round 13.
Underdog story of the season
Björn Pazen: In the Champions League Men, of course Aalborg’s way to the final. An incredible story looking where the Danish side came from, but Meshkov Brest also showed their masterclass. In the Champions League Women, Brest’s rise to the final and CSKA as debutants at the EHF FINAL4.
Kevin Domas: Motor Zaporozhye and their young generation being that close to the quarter-finals for the first time in history.
Adrian Costeiu: Vipers Kristiansand – they played only two games at home, due to the current health situation. They had to navigate through injuries for two key contributors, Nora Mørk and Heidi Løke. Vipers started with a seven-game unbeaten run, before their rhythm was disrupted by postponements. Yet they still shook off their rust after a series of bad results, went into quarantine in Norway and emerged sharper. They sensationally beat Rostov-Don in a double-header in Russia in the quarter-finals, then went on to win the trophy. Can it get any better than this?
Danijela Vekic: Aalborg no doubt. No one thought they will go as far as they did and they even won over PSG in the semi-finals at the EHF FINAL4.
Coach of the season
Björn Pazen: Stefan Madsen and Ole Gustav Gjekstad — two Scandinavians who had their own strategies, were focused, kept calm and were extremely important for the success of Aalborg and Vipers.
Kevin Domas: Laurent Bezeau and Raul Alonso. Alonso transformed Brest to turn them into EHF FINAL4 contenders in the last two seasons while Bezeau reaped what he had been sowing for five years in Brest.
Adrian Costeiu: Stefan Madsen. Picking Xavi Pascual or Ole Gustav Gjekstad, the aces who brought the trophies to Barça and Vipers, would be too easy, right? I will go a little bit out of the box and pick Madsen, who spearheaded Aalborg’s brilliant season in the EHF Champions League Men. No other Danish team reached the final before this season and Madsen, a former assistant who was promoted to head coaching duties in 2018, engineered a magnificent run, underlining the Danish side’s ambitions for the next seasons. But it was not about the EHF FINAL4 per se — it was about the journey; a superb one for Aalborg. An underrated coach. Expect more from Madsen in the future.
Danijela Vekic: Xavi Pasucal. No big words are needed. In his last season with Barcelona, he led them to the top of Europe, won everything in Spain and ended with five trophies without a lost match.
The 2020/21 season in one sentence
Björn Pazen: I have two. Option one: good, better, Barca. Option two: a ray of light in dark times.
Kevin Domas: I wish we'll never live another one like this.
Adrian Costeiu: I need more, please.
Danijela Vekic: A challenging season filled with exciting matches that ended with more Cologne magic.
Predictions for next season
Björn Pazen: In the Champions League Women, Ambros Martin will bring Györ back to glory and start another incredible series with his former club, outdistancing the rest, facing Rostov in the final. In the Champions League Men, Kielce will be much stronger than this season, while the expectations in Aalborg are too high. Besides Kielce, PSG and Veszprém will make it to Cologne but fail again, as Carlos Antonio Ortega will bring another Midas touch to Barça (if he becomes the new coach, as the rumours have hinted).
Kevin Domas: In the women’s, Györ will be very much frustrated and very motivated to regain their title with a brand-new team. In the men’s, I see Barça keeping their title as they will probably remain above everyone else by a good margin.
Adrian Costeiu: A new champion in the EHF Champions League Men? Barça will definitely need some time with their new coach, while PSG, Veszprém, Nantes and Aalborg look set to contend once again. And this competition always springs surprises. Just look at Montpellier’s win in 2018.
What about the DELO EHF Champions League? Look out for Györ to come back at their highest level, with Ambros Martin having the proper time to instill new life in the team. The other spots are up for grabs, with plenty of rotating chairs in the transfer market in all teams.
Danijela Vekic: My only prediction — or mainly my wish — is to have full stands again. To be able to watch handball matches in their full glory with fans supporting their favorite teams is a big thing. Regarding teams, Aalborg will have to hand over the underdog nametag to someone else as they will get stronger. Another battle between PSG and Veszprém to finally claim the EHF Champions League throne will continue, while Meshkov Brest might take another step forward. I think the next season will be the one of toughest so far, with many strong teams.