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Baltic Handball League
Group B is taking centre stage this weekend
Another weekend of Baltic Handball League is ahead and this time the action will be concentrated on Group B. Five very important games will be played in Riga, Dobele and Viljandi. Group A will continue with just one game, but a crucial one as well, as Dragunas Klaipeda will host Serviti Põlva.
The fight for top two places – which would give the teams the path to quarter-finals – in Group B is very intense. ZRHK Tenax Dobele leads with 11 points, but HC Tallinn and VHC Šviesa Vilnius following with 10 and the Lithuanian side having played one game less. Celtnieks Riga is not out of contention either, having six points.
Celtnieks will introduce the first German player in BHL
Celtnieks will host two Lithuanian teams this weekend, as will Tenax. In autumn, Celtnieks lost to Šviesa away by 29:32, but beat Granitas-Karys Kaunas by 25:23. Just like many other teams, Celtnieks have strengthened their squad, adding Robert Berg, who will be the first ever German player in BHL.
"Robert is a young player, who used to play in fourth division in Germany, but is now studying in Latvia. He will be a great asset for our team, as we have just lost Rihards Leja to injury and Berg can replace him as a playmaker," said head coach of Celtnieks, Normunds Blome.
"We are playing at home, which is an advantage, but both Lithuanian clubs are strong. Obviously we still have a very slim chance of finishing in top two. First we have to concentrate on our own matches and take two wins this weekend, but we also need some help from others, like Viljandi or Granitas," calculated Blome.
"We are approaching the weekend with good amount of optimism. Luckily we have got many more players back from injuries, so only Leja and Arturs Lazdinš remain on the sidelines. After a long time we can field 16 players, instead of 10, as has been the case in some games," added Celtnieks' head coach.
Šviesa facing very heavy match schedule in coming weeks
If the Latvian league had a break during this week, all BHL's Lithuanian teams were in action in domestic championships. Especially Šviesa will have a very heavy and hugely important schedule in coming days and weeks. On Wednesday they beat HC Vilnius 30:22 (Karolis Antanavičius 8 goals).
"We now have two BHL matches, followed by very important domestic league game against Alytus and then already on Saturday EHF CHallenge Cup first leg against RK Borac Banja Luka. So it is very difficult to decide where our priorities are," commented Šviesa's head coach Raimondas Maldžius.
"Some of our players got minor injuries against HC Vilnius, so we need to seriously consider if and how we will use them this weekend. Points in BHL are important, but so are the upcoming matches in other competitions. And we are playing away against strong Latvian teams, although Tenax has lost their key player Nils Kreicbergs," added Maldžius.
The other team, travelling to Latvia, Granitas-Karys suffered a heavy domestic defeat in the hands of Varsa-Stronglasas Alytus by 18:29 (Modestas Štarolis 7). Granitas-Karys still leads the Lithuanian league with 20 points, followed by Šviesa and Dragunas with 18, Kauno Ažuolas-KTU Kaunas with 15 and Varsa-Stronglasas with 13 points.
Dragunas and Serviti both strengthened before the important match
Another important Group B match – and an Estonian derby – will take place on Saturday, as Viljandi HC hosts HC Tallinn. The latter forced Estonian league leader HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper into a first defeat of the season on Tuesday, winning 29:25 (Markus Viitkar 8), while Viljandi lost two days later to Coop Põlva by 27:30 (Sergei Rodjukov 11).
Tallinn needs points if wishes to qualify to quarter-finals, but will have to play without their second-best BHL scorer Rainer Kelk, as the pivot is out injured. In November, Tallinn beat Viljandi easily by 30:18 and also defeated their Saturday's opponent in the Estonian Cup semi-final by 26:17, but lost the league match 26:27.
Third Estonian club in action will be Serviti, travelling to Dragunas Klaipeda, who in December took a 26:24 victory in Põlva. Domestically both teams approach the BHL-game with wins under their belt – Dragunas defeated SM Dubysa Šiauliai on Wednesday 40:20 (Benas Butkus 7) and Serviti beat SK Tapa on Thursday 31:25 (Henri Sillaste 8).
Serviti and Dragunas have had serious reinforcements in the last days of January transfer window. Estonian champion brought back an old acquaintance, key player of last years' success, as Russian playmaker Anatolii Chezlov joined the team again from HC Neva Sankt-Peterburg.
Dragunas strengthened their back line with a left-handed Gytis Šmantauskas, who left Lithuania for Austrian Bundesliga already as an 18-year-old. The right-back is now 21 and last played in Germany's third league for VfL Fredenbeck.
On photo: Last time Celtnieks Riga was in action, Kaspars Lisovskis scored six goals from six attempts and helped his team to a 37:33 league win over SK Latgols. (Photo: Celtnieks).