This year's path to the highest podium hasn't been as easy as some might think. We've seen some teams underachieve, while at the same time some of them risen to unexpected heights. But, in the end there can only be one!
As everyone already knows, SEHA – Gazprom League has crowned their new-old champions, Telekom Veszprem. After an underperforming season in the EHF Champions League and Hungarian League, where Veszprem did not win what was expected of them (first place), coach David Davis was sacked and Momir Ilic was given a chance to take over. A team made of handball stars just couldn't manage to play as a team which led to dissapointment and that needed to be changed. Luckily for the Hungarian Cup winners, Ilic kept the authoritive display even after his playing days and started working with what Veszprem had at the moment.
And, they looked like falling apart at one moment. When the transfer window approached its end, it was clear that Telekom Veszprem weren't going to be one of the big spenders. They decided it is the right time for a rebuild instead. Of course, the club mindset didn't change significantly, but most fans thought departures of Marton Szekely, Vuko Borozan, Rogerio Moraes, Kent Robin Tonnesen, Daniil Shishkarev and Nikolaj Markussen could never be replenished by Adrian Sipos and four youth academy players (Ilic, Dornyei, Bodor and Lukacs). One thing that also shocked 'Epitok' fans was the team captain change – they went from Mate Lekai, Veszprem veteran and legend, to Rasmus Lauge Schmidt, who for sure hasn't played as much matches due to injuries. But, 'Momo' had a plan.
Following a not-so persuasive first match versus Nexe (33:35 win), Hungarians showed a better display at home (30:25) and qualified for the Final 4 event in Zadar. Even though Veszprem players had only one week to prepare for the final two matches of the 2020/2021 season, they came to Dalmatia looking refreshed and ready to play.
Motor Zaporozhye, who managed their way to the Knockout Phase of EHFCL, seemed like a serious opponent at first. But as soon as teams stepped on the court, Ilic's squad started running and fighting for every possesion. Ukrainians held their own for most of first half, yet broke down after 20 minutes and no lead changes happened for the remaining 40 minutes. Petar Nenadic was the first name of the encounter, scoring 7 goals and dishing out 9 assists. Nevertheless, there was a lot of help from Gasper Marguc (9/10 shooting) and Vladimir Cupara (13/31 saves) who simply outplayed the likes of Aidenas Malasinskas, Barys Pukhouski, Dmytro Horiha, etc. for an easy 36:29 win.
Then, there came the final day of SEHA – Gazprom League Final 4. Everyone was eager to see if PPD Zagreb could pull off the biggest upset in history of the league. Throw-off signalised the beginning of their path to victory. Telekom Veszprem were off to a slow start, which resulted with a 6:3 PPD Zagreb lead after 10 minutes of play. 'Nenadic show Part 2' was what followed. Serbian national team player ended a 20-minute 7:12 Veszprem run with 4 goals, 3 assists and 1 steal, which meant he single-handedly outplayed the entire 'Lions' squad. Second half was a back and forth match, even though it was obvious who the favourite was. In the end, Zagreb played their second draw of a two-match event and went to penalty shoot-out against maybe the best goalie duo in the league – Corrales and Cupara. Goalies did their thing when it was needed most and saved Sipic and Cavar penalty, while only Strlek missed for the defending champions. Nenadic ended being the MVP of the tournament, adding another 8 goals and 4 assists to his tally, while Yahia Omar (8/10 shooting) and Cupara (2 saved penalties in the shoot-out) burried Zagreb hopes of winning a SEHA trophy after 8 years of drought.
All in all, one of the most exciting Final 4 events showed that there are still a couple of teams who excel in both defense and offense and others should follow their path if they want to reach SEHA glory.