24/01/2020

Duvjnak’s defending skills critical to Croatia’s efforts to stop Norway

FEATURE: When Croatia and Norway clash for the first final spot at the EHF EURO 2020, it is all about how to stop Sander Sagosen

Domagoj Duvnjak has been key to the Croatian defence - but will he be able to withstand the Norwegian attack? Photo © Jure Erzen / kolektiff

Nikola Karabatic? Out! Mikkel Hansen? Home! Kim Ekdahl du Rietz? Spectator!

With many handball superstars now out of the competition, there is only room for one: a player who has already scored 51 goals in this tournament and made 39 assists, putting him within reach of breaking the mark of 100 scorer points and becoming the first to do so at a European championship.

Sander Sagosen is no stranger to the big stage and has featured on several All-star Teams in past championships. But he is arguably now the most important player on the Norwegian team, especially with others such as Bjarte Myrhol and Magnus Röd ruled out through injury.

Now it is Croatia’s turn to try and stop Sagosen from running riot on court. However at the press conference ahead of the semi-final, assistant coach Hrvoje Horvat deflected the question from Sagosen, to focus on their opponents as a whole.

“Norway have great players, not only Sagosen,” Horvat points out. “We have to show a good 5-1 defence, but against all Norwegian players. They all play in top clubs, and definitely it is not only Sagosen.”

A movable 5-1 defence was Croatia’s key to coming back from a five-goal deficit against Germany, and drawing with Spain after being six goals down. And key to the success of that defence is Croatia’s captain Domagoj Duvnjak.

“We only have a chance against Norway if we stand united and solid as a rock,” says Duvnjak.

Croatia right back Luka Stepancic thinks mental strength could be as critical as physical strength against Norway.

“We can count on a great mental strength, like we proved against Germany and Spain,” Stepancic said on Thursday.

Stepancic also has respect for Sagosen, and looks back to the EHF EURO 2018 when Croatia beat Norway in the main round.

“I remember the last game in Zagreb, when we won, but Sander scored eight, nine goals. He is in a really good shape this tournament – but Norway have 16 great players,” Stepancic adds.

Hard and physical game

Respect goes both ways. Norwegian coach Christian Berge says Croatia’s defensive wall will be a challenge in the semi-final.

“Their 5-1 defence is really strong and many teams had problems with it. So this is one of the keys in the semi,” Berge says. “We have to play on 100 per cent and have to play our best game to make it to the final. It will be a hard and physical game.”

Right wing Kristian Björnsen agrees with his coach.

“Croatia’s defence stands really good. If they play on a high level, they score easy goals - this is what we need to avoid,” Björnsen says. “On the other hand, we want to continue scoring as many easy goals as possible.”

That makes Sagosen critical to Norway’s chances of winning their first-ever European medal.

“Sander is an amazing player, one of the best – and I say THE best player right now. The way he plays handball helped us to reach the semi-final,” says Björnsen.

Succeeding in both attack and defence is Berge’s focus coming into the semi-final.

“We always say the next game is the most important and we live by this sentence. We don’t talk about who is the favourite, we want to win every match, we want to win every attack and every defence. And if you win enough duels in the end you most probably win the match,” he says.

With both Duvnjak and Sagosen rested during their last main round matches, expect plenty of duels as Norway’s scoring sensation and Croatia’s defensive wall finally come up against each other in the giant cauldron of the Tele2 Arena.

written by Björn Pazen / jh