All four teams to have reached the semi-final stage have shown themselves to be mentally and physically tough, while playing fantastic handball. But there can only be one winner on Sunday.
ehf-euro.com journalists Courtney Gahan and Björn Pazen have followed the tournament from day one and here debate the questions to be answered in the coming days, including which team will win, who will be MVP, and which coach stands out.
The finalists, and the champion
Courtney Gahan: The final will be a group II rematch. Norway are the only team to arrive at the final weekend on the back of nothing but wins, and they are hungry as hell. All teams want the trophy, but Norway have been focused on that as the one and only goal since they lost their last final to Denmark one year ago at the World Championship.
They are not about to let Croatia stand in their way. With their depth and the stand-out attacker in the tournament, Sander Sagosen, Norway will win the semi-final narrowly after taking an early lead and surviving a late comeback from Croatia.
Slovenia have impressed at the EHF EURO 2020, but there is a sense they have not yet been seen at their absolute best. With two losses on the path the penultimate stage and sections of games that the coaching staff and players agree were patchy, they have fought their way through an imperfect campaign. Sometimes a champion comes from a clean sweep. More often they overcome obstacles.
Do not forget that Slovenia themselves were the obstacle Spain overcame on the path to their title two years ago. Coach Jordi Ribera said in the pre-semi-final press conference that this loss – their only one of the EURO 2018 – ended up being the shake-up his team needed on the path to the trophy.
The same will prove true for Slovenia in Stockholm. We will see a Slovenia we have not yet, as their team – young yet fairly experienced in high-level competitions, particularly at club level – will rise to new heights and defeat Spain thanks to their speed.
In the final, Slovenia’s defence will have the answer to quietening Sander Sagosen and affecting the Scandinavian side’s game enough to throw Norway off, and they will clinch their first EHF EURO title.
Björn Pazen: I completely disagree! When looking at the whole of the EHF EURO 2020, everyone can see that defence is much more important than having superstars in attack. And in terms of defending, definitely Spain and Croatia were the strongest, and therefore will make it to the final.
Spain have the opportunity to chose from two different defence systems, switching easily from 6-0 to 5-1 with Alex Dujshebaev in front, while the Croats do almost the same with Domagoj Duvnjak as the sweeper. Connected with strong goalkeepers, those rock-solid walls are able to stop every team.
Therefore I expect extremely low-scoring semi-finals, in which concrete beats creativity – with both teams from group I in Vienna going all the way to the final.
And the winner? I’m choosing Spain, as they have a slightly wider bench with more options to rotate and stronger goalkeepers.
And the MVP is…
BP: According to all statistics so far, there can only be one MVP: Norwegian superstar Sander Sagosen. But in the end, a MVP has to have his impact on the final. Okay, in 2010, Czech Filip Jicha became MVP even without making it to the semi-finals, but now it is different. As mentioned in my prediction for the final, my picks are Croatia and Spain – therefore the MVP comes from those sides.
In terms of the value and significance for the team, Spain do not have just one or two stars, but function as a team. Therefore, my choice is a Croat who was named MVP of the VELUX EHF FINAL4 last year - Igor Karacic.
You don’t have to be the top scorer in any unimportant match, but you have to be there when it counts – and Karacic steered his side through the biggest storm they had, in Croatia’s crucial main round encounter against Germany. Besides, he is a true leader of his side with a great mentality.
CG: When a player is so dominant all through the tournament, exactly as you pointed out with the case of Jicha in 2010, they are impossible to ignore. I do not think there is anybody who would disagree that, before the semi-finals throw off, Sagosen appears the clear choice for MVP.
However, I agree with you – the MVP must have a big impact in the finals. While Norway will make the final, this weekend, Sagosen will face tougher and smarter defence against him than he has up until now, and he will be quietened. However, he needs 10 goals to level Kiril Lazarov’s record of most scored in one EURO, and over two matches, he will manage that.
Why not an MVP who has been critical in both attack and defence? Slovenia left back Borut Mackovsek has nowhere near the same number of goals as Sagosen, but Sagosen plays only in attack and focuses all his efforts there.
Mackovsek still ranks among the top 20 at the EHF EURO 2020 for goals from the field, with his powerful distance shots an important part of Slovenia’s game. He is also crucial in Slovenia’s defence. The combination of Mackovsek and Blaz Blagotinsek as key defenders is one of the most difficult to beat, and their blocking statistics – among the best in the EURO – support that.
Mackovsek will be one of the most important elements for Slovenia this weekend, and handball is about more than attack.
Focus on the goalkeeper battle
CG: Cooperation with defence is the key for a good goalkeeper. And no one has done it better than Norway’s Torbjoern Bergerud, especially in the opening of matches.
More than once Norway kept their opponents from scoring for several minutes, while Bergerud’s saves paved the way for his side to take an early and decisive lead that always proved crucial. Against Iceland, Bergerud saved every shot until the eighth minute. His strong openings – coupled with the defence in front of him and Norway’s ability to make the most of his saves – will be a crucial element, and they will leave Croatia behind early in their semi-final.
When Croatia come back, Bergerud will be the hero. He is a big-time crunch player, and proved that most memorably against none other than Croatia. Who can forget the penalty save which sent their World Championship 2017 semi-final into extra time and led Norway to the final?
BP: The goalkeepers and their cooperation with the defence are the key for everything, this is absolutely true, taking in account the strong performance we have seen from all semi-final participants, and of course others such as “Portuguese Octopus” Alfredo Quintana. But still, there is one goalkeeper ahead of the rest: Gonzalo Perez de Vargas.
In cooperation with his genius counterpart Rodrigo Corrales, he is again outstanding. He is calm, with brilliant reflexes and perfectly adapted to the way Spain defends. And as Alex Dujshebaev says, “it gives you so much confidence to have Gonzalo behind you. As a defender you can make a mistake, as you know that he saves the shot”. There is nothing more to add.
Off the court and onto the bench: who is the tactical genius?
BP: It is really hard to find the best out of four brilliant, experienced and highly successful coaches such as Lino Cervar, Jordi Ribera, Christian Berge and Ljubomir Vranjes. But finally, I go for the last Swede in the tournament.
Taking over the Slovenian team just a few weeks before the EHF EURO, with the enormous pressure to deliver results, and ultimately getting the team to the semi-finals as well an Olympic Qualification Tournament place gets a “chapeau!” from my side.
Vranjes showed his sensational skills steering the underdogs from Flensburg to the podium of the VELUX EHF Champions League. Then he failed at Veszprém, but has risen again to take over a team that exactly fits the way he played himself: with creative playmakers, counter attacks and clever players, who are not put in a tactical frame, but can decide on their own. This is modern coaching.
CG: Of course Vranjes deserves credit for bringing Slovenia to where they are at the EHF EURO 2020, but he took over a team with all the right ingredients for big success. The Slovenia players have said the biggest influence from Vranjes was on their confidence.
Focusing on tactics alone, Jordi Ribera is a master. He won the EHF EURO 2018 with a Spanish squad featuring some choices that at the time were controversial – especially the absence of legendary Barça captain Victor Tomas. Still, with the revamped team, he led Spain to their first ever title in the event – after they had made it to the medal round seven times before without taking the trophy.
No doubt we expect a great coaching battle in the Spain versus Slovenia semi-final, but Spain will be better at adjusting their strategy to what Slovenia bring into the game. However, the Slovenia players’ experience with the Spanish play and their greater speed will be the key in the end and they will end Ribera’s dream of Spain becoming the first to defend the title.