Two-time VELUX EHF Champions League winner Martin Popovski is confident North Macedonia can progress to the main round ahead of their must-win match against Austria in Vienna on Tuesday.
After losing to the Czech Republic on Sunday, Popovski and the Macedonians know nothing less than a victory by two clear goals against the co-hosts will do if they are to extend their stay at EHF EURO 2020 for another week.
“We have two win by two goals or more but that’s the mentality we go into every game with – we won’t try to calculate or use maths, we will go there to win – just win,” said the 25-year-old HC Prolet 62 right wing.
“For each team the last match is a final. We are focused on the next game. We need to forget about what happened against the Czechs.
“If we play to our top level and cut out the small mistakes that have been in the last two games then we have a good chance. Austria are a good team but they are our kind of opponents – tall and strong. We like that, but let’s see. We have the quality, we just need to show it.
“Our expectation was to win two matches to get into the main round, so while it was disappointing to lose the Czech game, we know we have won one game already so we are halfway there.”
Experience on their side
What can help the Macedonians in the quest to progress to the main round are the experienced faces in Danilo Brestovac’s squad.
And Popovski believes he and the younger members of the team need to embrace playing alongside senior colleagues Kiril Lazarov and Stojanche Stoilov.
“There’s so much quality in the team but remember there are many young players, too,” explained the former Vardar man.
“Our team has changed a lot over the past four or five years. That’s not excuse, because we have players in the squad who have the experience of playing in many big competitions. Half of our team are playing in the Champions League in good leagues all over the world.
“There is a good mix of youth and experience but some of our experienced players will not be playing with us in four or five years’ time. Right now we have a good chemistry and the old and young players must combine to make great results.
“We must use the fact that Lazarov is still playing. But we must use him, learn from him, and grow from him.”
Lazarov’s 11 goals in the defeat to the Czech Republic saw the 39-year-old – who holds the record for the most goals ever scored at one EHF EURO (61 in 2012) – become one of the top-10 all-time goal-scorers in the history of the competition.
Learning from the legends
Popovski, who only made his debut for the national team in 2017, still cannot believe he is able to share a court with a legend of Macedonian handball.
“When I was young I was watching Lazarov on television, he was my idol,” he smiles. “It was always my dream to play for my country and now I’m here I feel as though I’ve learnt a lot in that time.
“Playing alongside Lazarov and Stoilov for the team and during my time at Vardar has really helped me, not just my performances but my mentality, too.”
With the passionate support of Macedonians expected in a capacity crowd for the do-or-die game against Austria, all Popovski hopes for is that the match is not their last of the competition.
“You have seen that France are already going home,” he says. “That has surprised us all. If we also go home then perhaps it is no shame to go home at the same stage as a team like France but of course we would be disappointed.
“But the results across all matches have shown how much quality there is across the tournament.
“This is handball: sometimes you win and sometimes you lose – and we’ll be doing everything we can to win against Austria.”