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Baltic Handball League
Important weekend ahead with close race in both groups
Regular season in Baltic Handball League is getting into descisive stage, group tables show a very close race for the play-offs is ahead. This weekend eight matches will be played, most of them in Group B, where the competition for two quarter-finals spots is exceptionally even and hugely important matches lay ahead.
Three teams have nine points in Group B with VHC Šviesa Vilnius having one game less played than Celtnieks Riga and HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper. In addition, Granitas-Karys Kaunas is firmly in the race as well with six points and one game in hand. HC Tallinn is at five points, needing to win all remaining games and hoping the top four lose points. Viljandi HC has two points and have lost chances of qualifying.
Maldžius: we cannot afford to lose points at home
Four of the five Group B games in the coming weekend will take place in Lithuania, as Šviesa and Granitas-Karys host Celtnieks and Viljandi. Last season's quarter-finalist Šviesa has lost only once this season – to Kehra – and are also leading the Lithuanian league, where they beat SC Dubysa Šiauliai on Wednesday 42:19 (Laurynas Palevičius 8 goals).
"This will be very important weekend for all teams in our group. We cannot afford to lose any points at home, so Saturday against Viljandi is as important as the next day against Celtnieks. The Latvians are much stronger than in last seasons and have declared they want to win the group," said Šviesa's head coach Raimondas Maldžius.
"We also hope our compatriots Granitas will help us by taking points away from other contenders, as I know they are in a very good form. Domestically we had an easy game this week, but it will much tougher now. We have lost our playmaker Karolis Antonovičius for the rest of the season, but brought in Karolis Bliuvas to replace him," explained Maldžius.
Former EHF/IHF Cup winner Granitas-Karys has climbed steadily in the domestic league after a poor season start and is already third in the table. On Wednesday, they beat Kauno Ažuolas-KTU in the Kaunas-derby 31:29 (Karolis Grigas 8). Granitas lost to Celtnieks 25:36 in November, but beat Viljandi in the away game by 29:27.
Celtnieks determined to qualify for play-offs
The other team on nine points, Celtnieks will have hugely important away games in Lithuania. Curiously, the Latvian side has very different record against their opponents. Celtnieks has not lost in last five BHL matches to Granitas, while they have lost all three they ever played against Šviesa, last time at home in November by 33:34.
"We are closer than ever in recent history to qualify for the play-offs and very determined to achieve that. So in that sense, two games in Lithuania will be very important. Every point lost at this stage of the season can be costly. Tallinn beat Serviti recently, Granitas is getting into form, so it can easily be five teams fighting for two spots," analyzed Celtnieks' team manager Normunds Blome.
"Players are ready and very motivated, we can see it in trainings and games. All guys are fit, so we are travelling with our strongest squad. Comparing with last matches, we need to improve defensively, as the attack seems to work quite well," added Blome, who has the runaway top scorer of BHL in his ranks, Aliaksei Haisa has scored 61 goals this season.
In the remaning Group B game, Kehra will host HC Tallinn in yet another Estonian derby. The two teams have met no fewer than 14 times over the course of last two-and-half seasons with both winning seven of the games. This season's first BHL-encounter ended to Kehra's favour 27:25.
ZTR and Serviti the busy teams in Group A
Group A is definitely not less interesting than Group B, although teams have played very uneven amount of games and much will be clearer after next two weeks, when five of the postponed matches will take place. Cocks Riihimäki has nine points (from 6 games), SKA Minsk and ZTR Zaporozhye seven (5) with ZRHK Tenax Dobele also on seven (7).
Serviti Põlva and Dragunas Klaipeda both have three points (6 and 7 games respectively), but both teams are still in contention for play-off places. The winner of Group A goes straight to the Final Four, while next four qualify to the quarter-finals and only the sixth-placed team will see their season end with regular season.
ZTR and Serviti will be the busiest Group A teams this weekend, as they first play each other on Saturday. The opening match of the season in September brought a 23:23 draw, last season ZTR won both games against Estonian champions. The next day ZTR will take on Tenax in Dobele, where they claimed a 31:28 victory in November.
Serviti will have a huge game on Sunday, as Dragunas comes to Põlva for possible fifth-place play-off. Six weeks ago in Klaipeda, Lithuanian champion took a 31:28 victory. Serviti suffered a rare loss in Estonian league on Monday, capitulating to HC Tallinn 24:23 (Alfred Timmo 6), while Dragunas beat KKSC-RSSG-Grifas Panevežys 29:18 (Lukas Simenas 6).
On photo: Last time Celtnieks Riga and VHC Šviesa Vilnius played, the margin was one goal in favour of Lithuanians. (Photo: Celtnieks Riga).