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Baltic Handball League
All four teams aiming for BHL glory
The 2017/18 Baltic Handball League season is reaching the culmination this weekend, as the Final Four takes place in Põlva. Hosts Serviti will take on ZTR Zaporozhye in Saturday's semi-finals and title-defender Cocks Riihimäki will play SKA Minsk to determine the second finalist. The final and the third-place play-off are played on Sunday. All matches will be streamed live on baltichandball.net.
Curiously, the Final Four participants are exactly the same as a year ago and even the semi-final pairs are the same. 12 months ago – also in Põlva – ZTR beat Serviti 31-23 and Cocks defeated SKA 36-35. In the final, Cocks defended their title by overcoming ZTR by 20-18, while SKA took the bronze-medals after a 26-23 win over Serviti.
Title-holder is on a 38-game winning streak!
Cocks is probably going into the Final Four weekend as slight favourites, because they are currently on a 38-match winning streak in BHL. Last time they lost, was in April 2015, when SKA beat the Finns in the final 41-22. In domestic league Cocks is in the semi-finals and they also reached the EHF Cup group stage, where managed to take one victory.
"There can be only one goal for the BHL Final Four and it is to do our best in order to defend the title," said Cocks' head coach Gintaras Savukynas. "All four teams are quite equal in my eyes and for us it is one of the most important weekends of the season. We had very intensive three months, so last weekend was the first, when players could rest."
Savukynas admits Cocks has some injury worries, as Theo Westerlund and Viktor Kovalenko are only starting to get back to handball. "But we are ready and we know our opponents. SKA is a very strong team, they had a good EHF Cup campaign and have loads of quality. The Belarussians have playing rhythm, which can be their advantage, but our players really needed the rest, so the three-week break for us was also good," added Savukynas.
SKA Minsk is out for revenge
Already in the semi-final we will see a clash of the EHF Cup group stage teams, as SKA also made it this far in their European campaign. And the Belarussians did better than Cocks, claiming two wins by beating Bjerringbro-Silkeborg and Tatran Prešov, while also drawing once with the Slovakian team.
In the Belarus championship SKA is currently second, just one point behind Champions League side HC Meshkov Brest. SKA was the only BHL team in action this week, as on Wednesday they beat HC Gomel at home 41-37 (Mikalai Aliokhin and Vladyslav Dontsov 5 goals).
SKA missed a trio of players on Wednesday with Ivan Maroz, Maksim Sonchyk and Viachaslau Bokhan were out, but team manager of SKA, Oleg Lebedev assures the injuries are only minor. "We are going to Põlva with our best squad and our aim is to win the tournament, having missed out in last two seasons," said Lebedev.
"The fact we are in playing rhythm compared to other participants, is an advantage to us," believes Lebedev. "We are in good form, had a very good EHF Cup group stage and the team spirit is excellent. Cocks has defeated us in last two years, so it is time to have revenge!"
ZTR will be missing one of their leaders in Andrii Akimenko
ZTR Zaporozhye made their BHL debut last season and reached the final, but this season they have struggled a little more and only finished third in Group B behind Serviti and SKA. In the Ukrainian league ZTR is on same points as Champions League team HC Motor Zaporozhye, but the latter has four games less played.
"We have been preparing extremely seriously for this," said ZTR's head coach Vitaliy Nat, who today celebrates his 41st birthday. "BHL is a very important competition for us and we are travelling to Põlva with great team spirit and full of eagerness to do well. Final Four is a special tournament and we are concentrated on the semi-final – it is one-off, you will not get a second chance."
Serviti defeated ZTR twice in the group stage, by two goals on both occasions. "We have made our analysis and necessary changes to the game plan in order to play better against the Estonians. Both teams have not played for several weeks, so I am sure the players have more energy and power – they have missed serious handball," added Nat.
ZTR had eight players in Ukrainian national team training camp last week, but not one of their leaders, as Andrii Akimenko was injured. "A day before the national team camp he broke his ankle and will be out for a month," commented Nat, who will surely be missing the right-winger, who has scored 65 goals so far in BHL.
Kalmer Musting: our first target is to reach the final
Serviti hosts the Final Four for the second time in a row, but had to settle with fourth place last season. It was the first time in eight years when the Estonian champion did not make it to top three, their last title is from 2009/10 season. In the domestic league, Serviti won the regular season by clear margin and is waiting for semi-finals against HC Tallinn.
They also topped the Group B of BHL regular season and eliminated another former winner HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper in the quarter-finals. Serviti's semi-final opponent ZTR lost both matches against the Estonians in regular season – in December Serviti won 28-26 and in February 24-22.
"We have been preparing well, almost all players are fit, only our defensive specialist Indrek Neeme has back problems, but I hope he is fit in the weekend," said Serviti's head coach Kalmer Musting. "Our first target is to reach the final, everything that comes after that would be a bonus and probably also a surprise."
Having played ZTR twice this season, Musting knows the opponent: "We did win both matches in the group stage, but it was down to details and could have easily gone the other way. The most important is to start well, as last year in the semi-final we let ZTR go ahead and never managed to get back into the game properly."
Top three of BHL in last 10 years
2007/08: Serviti Põlva (EST), HC Meshkov Brest (BLR), ASK/AB.LV Riga (LAT)
2008/09: HC Dinamo Minsk (BLR), HC Chocolate Boys (EST), HC Meshkov Brest (BLR)
2009/10: Serviti Põlva (EST), Cocks Riihimäki (FIN), LSPA Riga (LAT)
2010/11: HC Kehra (EST), Serviti Põlva (EST), VHC Šviesa Vilnius (LIT)
2011/12: HC Kehra (EST), Serviti Põlva (EST), Dragunas Klaipeda (LIT)
2012/13: SKA Minsk (BLR), Cocks Riihimäki (FIN), Serviti Põlva (EST)
2013/14: SKA Minsk (BLR), Serviti Põlva (EST), Cocks Riihimäki (FIN)
2014/15: SKA Minsk (BLR), Cocks Riihimäki (FIN), Serviti Põlva (EST)
2015/16: Cocks Riihimäki (FIN), SKA Minsk (BLR), Serviti Põlva (EST)
2016/17: Cocks Riihimäki (FIN), ZTR Zaporozhye (UKR), SKA Minsk (BLR)