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Baltic Handball League
ZTR Zaporozhye preparing for historic "weekend"
Baltic Handball League returns to action with ten games, which this time will be spread over three days. And this fact also brings a small historic element to this week's matches, as Ukrainian side ZTR Zaporozhye will play three games in three days, which they have never done before.
Last season's fourth-placed team and 2016/17 BHL runner-up will have a truly exhaustive week. ZTR travels from Ukraine to Riga, then by bus to Kehra to play on Friday evening, continuing straight to Põlva. After another match on Saturday against local Serviti, the Ukrainians will make an ever longer bus trip to Klaipeda to meet Dragunas on Sunday!
Vitaliy Nat: players are physically ready for the challenge
"It is definitely the first time for myself and our team to have three matches in three consecutive days, but it is how it is and we must prepare accordingly," said ZTR's head coach Vitaliy Nat. "I am sure the players are physically ready for the challenge, but it is the psychological part of long travel time and tough matches, which is even more important."
Another issue for ZTR is, that the team has not played any matches since a league game on 25th October. "Fixture list has been a bit strangely set for us, that is true. We did have three players in Ukrainian national team, but they played very little or not at all, so match practice is surely lacking," commented Nat.
ZTR has met all three opponents before, though HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper two years ago, when they beat the Estonians twice in regular season. Ukrainian league runner-up lost to Serviti all three matches last season, including in the semi-final, but did beat their Saturday's opponent a year before in the semi-final of the Final Four. Dragunas was ZTR's opponent in last year's quarter-finals and Ukrainians were better twice – 29:28 and 32:27.
"All three opponents are very strong and I am in fact very glad with the new system, because it is the tough matches that develop the players and also are more enjoyable for our fans," admits Nat. "We have worked very hard in trainings to be ready for this weekend and after the win over SKA Minsk would like to add more points to our tally."
Injury-hit Serviti feels in unknown territory
For Kehra, the match against ZTR on Friday will be the only encounter this week, but Serviti will also meet an "old friend" SKA Minsk on Sunday in Põlva. The two clubs have had great battles over the last years in BHL and the matches have always been tight. Last year during regular season both matches ended in draw – 33:33 and 29:29! Before that SKA defeated Serviti two years in-a-row in the semi-finals and Serviti's last win dates back to November 2014.
"We did not lose to SKA and ZTR last year, but now it is going to be more difficult," said Serviti's long-serving head coach Kalmer Musting. "We have had so many injury problems, so the season has not been easy so far. Obviously we are going to fight for points, but the opposition is very strong on both days."
Serviti added an Ukrainian right-back to their team in October, as Stanislav Kholodiuk joined after few years in Turkish league. "It is also a test for him to show us how good he can be against better opponents. We have had few tough games in recent weeks, so we are feeling a little bit in uknown territory," claimed Musting.
SKA will also start the "weekend" on Friday, playing Dragunas in Klaipeda. The Belarus runner-up has had busy time compared to their Ukrainian neighbours and played three league matches inside seven days, taking three wins. SKA beat HC Gomel 30:21 (Mikita Vailupau 7 goals), Masheka Mogilyov 42:27 (Uladzislau Kryvenka 9) and U18 national team 39:28 (Mikalai Aliokhin and Dzmitry Khmialkou 6).
Dragunas did not play SKA last season, but has one win out of four matches in previous two years. At home, the Lithuanian champion continues unbeaten, taking wins no. 4 and 5 during last week. Dragunas beat HC Vilnius 32:28 (Karolis Bliuvas 6) and Varsa-Stronglasas Alytus 32:23 (Žanas Gabrielius Virbauskas 9).
Šviesa uses BHL to prepare for EHF Challenge Cup
The weekend will also be busy in Group B, where both Latvian clubs will travel to Lithuania. VHC Šviesa Vilnius will host Celtnieks Riga on Saturday and ZRHK Tenax Dobele on Sunday, while Granitas-Karys Kaunas does the same in opposite order. Šviesa is one of the two BHL teams still in contention in Europe, as they prepare for EHF Challenge Cup matches against Bodø HK from Norway.
"We have difficult period now, playing 13 games inside 40 days and so far we are unstable," admits Šviesa's head coach Raimondas Maldžius, whose team lost last week in domestic league to Varsa-Stronglasas 24:22 (Valdas Drabavičius 6), but managed to beat RK Kauno Ažuolas-KTU on Wednesday by 34:32 (Karolis Antanavičius 9).
"Obviously our focus is in the EHF Challenge Cup right now, because if we advanced from first round, would like to perform well also against the Norwegians," said Maldžius. "The matches against Latvians come in good time, it is very important to get strong opponents with different styles before European games."
Just like Dragunas, Granitas-Karys has five wins out of five matches in Lithuanian league, but had more time to prepare for the visiting Latvians, as they did not play in midweek. On Sunday, Granitas beat RK Kauno Ažuolas-KTU 35:29 (Tadas Bučinskas 16). Former EHF Cup winner has struggled against Latvian sides in recent years.
Latvian teams are travelling to Lithuania on a high note, having both won their last two matches in domestic league. Tenax beat HK Ogre 32:31 (Andis Ermanis 10) and Jurmalas Sports 38:26 (Ermanis 8) with Celtnieks winning over SK Latgols 38:29 (Rihards Leja 12) and HK Ogre 33:28 (Vladislav Koshman 12). Unbeaten Tenax leads in Latvia with 18 points, Celtnieks have two points less.
On Saturday, an Estonian Group B derby takes place in Tallinn, as HC Tallinn host Viljandi HC. The teams have never met in BHL, but Viljandi is so far the only Estonian team who Tallinn has not beaten. In club's inaugural domestic season Viljandi took the better of Tallinn in all four encounters, including twice in the third-place play-off of the Estonian championships.
On photo: Andrii Akimenko is the only ZTR player who has had some match practice in recent weeks, playing for Ukrainian national team. (Photo: Helin Potter).