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Baltic Handball League
Important games in both groups before Christmas-break
Before teams can start even thinking about Christmas, the Baltic Handball League has an important weekend ahead. Ten teams will play nine games and it is equally crucial matches for all of them. The standings in Group B show an extremely tight season and in Group A the champions of four countries will have almost a "mini-tournament" over two days.
Title-holder Cocks Riihimäki and Estonian champion Serviti Põlva will travel to play ZRHK Tenax Dobele and Dragunas Klaipeda in chase of points. As Group A leader SKA Minsk is not playing this weekend in BHL, Cocks has a chance of overtaking the top spot, while Serviti and Dragunas Klaipeda are looking for their first win of the season.
Juškenas: Kalmer Musting is always capable of surprises
The opening match of the weekend will see Dragunas hosting Serviti. Last season the two domestic champions produced two fascinating matches with both winning away by narrow margins – Dragunas 26:24 in Põlva and Serviti 24:23 in Klaipeda.
"Põlva is Põlva, our matches are always tight and very interesting. Serviti has just won the Estonian Cup and seem to be in very good form. Even if we may know eachother well, Kalmer Musting is always capable of bringing surprises," showed Dragunas' head coach Arturas Juškenas respect to the opponent and it's long-time coach.
"It will be a very difficult weekend and if we get two points, I will be happy. If more, I would say "wow". But points we need in order to keep chances alive of advancing to the play-offs. We need full strength squad to compete with Cocks and Serviti, but at the moment we do not have it," commented the boss of Dragunas, who on Wednesday enjoyed a domestic league win over VHC Šviesa Vilnius by 32:26 (Žanas Gabrielius Virbauskas 7 goals).
Similarly, Serviti took a league win in midweek, defeating Viljandi HC 34:22 (Ülljo Pihus 6). "After the cup Final Four and ahead of BHL games, I tried to share the minutes equally, especially in attack. It is a very difficult period with so many matches and while some players are coming back, some are getting injured," said Serviti's head coach Musting.
"We have not played Dragunas yet this season, so we will surely look at videos and analyse their last games. But I know how good they are and it seems Virbauskas is becoming more and more a leader of the team and will be hard to stop. Tenax is playing in similar style to us and have their own leader in Aivis Jurdžs," added Musting.
"No easy matches in this group," admits Sandris Veršakovs
The other team to host Cocks and Serviti will be ZRHK Tenax Dobele, who lost 27:22 away to Cocks, but beat Serviti in Põlva 31:29 in the opening matches. The Latvian champion is lying fourth in the group table, having also beaten Dragunas 34:33 at home two weeks ago.
"There are no easy matches in this group, the level is high and teams quite equal in strength. Unfortunately we cannot play at home against Cocks due to problems with the sports hall, but we will take our fans to Riga on Saturday and then host Serviti already in Dobele the day later," explained Sandris Veršakovs, the head coach of Tenax.
"In recent weeks there has been a lot of games, so there is no time for training in this busy schedule. In addition, a flu epidemic has hit Latvia and few players are also doubtful for this weekend. But we will surely field the best possible team and fight for wins, as points are needed," assured Veršakovs.
At halfway stage of Group B four top teams are separated by just two points with HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper on top with eight, followed by VHC Šviesa Vilnius with seven, Celtnieks Riga and Granitas-Karys Kaunas with six points. HC Tallinn has three and Viljandi HC is still without points.
The two Lithuanian teams will meet in Vilnius. In September, Šviesa took a 26:25 away win with Karolis Antanavičius scoring the winner 12 seconds before the final whistle. In Lithuanian league, Šviesa suffered their first defeat of the season on Wednesday, losing 32:26 to Dragunas (Antanavičius and Šarunas Ugianskis 6).
Tallinn and Kehra visiting Riga and Viljandi
Elsewhere in Group B, Riga and Viljandi will be the centre of attention, as Celtnieks and Viljandi HC will welcome Tallinn and Kehra over the weekend. The Latvian side visited Estonia in September, lost 32:28 to Kehra, but managed to take narrow 30:29 win over Tallinn.
Viljandi is hosting two fellow Estonian teams and obviously they have played several times this season. In BHL, Kehra was 31:26 better, but in league both sides have won once this season. Tallinn seems to be a more difficult opponent for Viljandi, as in BHL they won 26:17 and in league 38:24 with one more match scheduled for next Wednesday.
In midweek, all three Estonian teams were in action in the domestic league, as Viljandi suffered 34:22 defeat against champions Serviti (Aleksander Pertelson 7). Tallinn and Kehra played eachother and just as in the cup semi-final on Saturday, Tallinn was better by 32:24 (Marko Slastinovski 7 – Vladyslav Naumenko 7).
"For 35 minutes we managed to play on equal terms against Serviti, which is encouraging. Players performed exactly as agreed, but in the second half Serviti's longer bench made the difference. We became tired and could not use our chances. Luckily we now finish this year with three home games and hopefully also with some points," said Viljandi's head coach Marko Koks.
On photo: The matches between Serviti Põlva and Dragunas Klaipeda are always tight and interesting. (Photo: Helin Potter/BHL archives).