Here are five interesting features from this week’s fourth round of the men’s Champions League, which saw three teams – Ferencvaros, Barceloneta and Recco – advance to the quarter-finals.
1 Olympiacos and its Croats showed no mercy in Dubrovnik
Olympiacos handed a historical 5-15 defeat to Jug in Dubrovnik – no visiting team has ever claimed a 10-goal win in the once feared Gruz Pool, home of the four-time Champions League winners. There was also nothing to suggest such a humiliation was on the cards, especially as in the clash between the two sides on Day 1, Jug led by five goals in Piraeus before the Greeks fought back to force a shootout.
A month later, Olympiacos dominated the game from the start and even though it didn’t look that bad at the beginning of the fourth, at 5-9, the hosts crashed in the following five minutes as their rivals staged a 0-6 rout. The heavy loss will leave Jug’s players and fans hurting, and the three Croatians in Olympiacos’ line-up – goalie Marko Bijac, 2m defender Andro Buslje and centre-forward Luka Loncar – will know more than most how wounded they’ll feel, as will their Croatian head coach Hrvoje Koljanin. Both field-players netted one goal apiece, while Bijac – who is, like Buslje, from Dubrovnik – posted an amazing 68.8% saving percentage, stopping 11 of 16 shots.
2 A winning stat: blocks
Thanks to a new approach, blocking shots is becoming a highlighted feature among coaches and ultimately the players. “If you have 7-8-9 blocks in a game, you’d win that match more easily than by scoring 10-11 goals,” says Hungary’s world champion head coach Zsolt Varga, who was in charge at Ferencvaros till last season. Though he is no longer part of the daily set-up, his heritage is maintained by his successor, Balazs Nyeki, who had been his assistant for many years.
And on Day 4, the Hungarian champions delivered more proof about the importance of blocking, this time against Jadran Herceg Novi. While the two FTC goalies had only six saves between them, the defenders had no less than nine blocks, which went a long way in helping them claim a huge 10-17 victory and send them through to the quarters with two rounds still to go.
3 Novi Beograd: defence at its best
After an embarrassing home defeat to Sabadell, Novi Beograd bounced back in impressive style, with a big 12-5 win in Bucharest. Though the runners-up in the last two seasons had some problems in offence in the second period – with plenty of master-shooters on board, scoring no goals for eight minutes against Steaua is a bit strange – their defence did an outstanding job. They allowed only 16 shots in total for the Romanians, making their goalie’s job easy. At the same time, they had 27 shots with 20 on target, and ultimately these efforts landed three more important points for NBG to put them back on top in Group A.
4 The goalie’s goal wasn’t enough for Jadran Split
Jadran Split played its third away match and remained consistent in scoring 11 goals once more, just like in the previous two rounds. While that was enough to win against Jadran Herceg Novi (10-11), now the Croats lost again, this time in Belgrade to Crvena Zvezda (12-11 – two weeks ago FTC bettered them 13-11 in Budapest). The Serbs were also doing well in Split on Day 1, leading 9-11 when they missed a crucial penalty late in the third period, Jadran smelled blood and levelled the score before the last break and sailed away with a 16-13 victory.
This time, Zvezda didn’t let it go, despite some heroics from Split’s goalie Mate Anic. He was the one who saved that penalty in Split four weeks ago – and now he even scored a goal from 28m as he saw his fellow goalie swimming out of his cage to hunt down a potential long pass aimed to the forward in front during a counter-attack.
A fantastic feat, especially in the fourth period of a Champions League encounter, in such a tight match where his brilliant shot tied the game at 9-9. That gave a boost for his side which soon took the lead at 10-11, however, their fine spell was short-lived, as the Serbs hit back with back-to-back goals to deny Jadran an upset and keep their Final Eight hopes alive.
5 End of Vouliagmeni’s fairy tale
Vouliagmeni enjoyed some memorable highs last season. The Greeks, making the group stage for the first time since the introduction of the Champions League in 2014, went all the way to the Final Eight, where they caused the upset of the season when they ousted Brescia, winner of the other group, in the quarter-finals. At the end, they finished fourth, but only after losing the bronze medal match to Barceloneta in a penalty shootout.
They may have returned to the big stage after a fine qualification campaign, but adding another chapter to their fairy-tale like story is proving to be a real struggle. They are yet to win a match in the group stage, losing four in a row. Their defence looks vulnerable, conceding 14 and 15 goals respectively in their away matches, and 12 in both their home games. At least they produced double digits in offence in the previous three rounds, but this time Marseille let them only nine goals while winning this crucial encounter, a kind of last chance for both sides. This victory kept the French in the hunt, while Vouliagmeni can only hope for a better run in the Euro Cup later in the season.