After the 29:28 away win in Kiel, HC Vardar were the favourites ahead of the second-leg VELUX EHF Champions League Quarter-final on home ground – but as the ‘Zebras’ fought until the last breath, the ticket to Cologne was not decided until the final buzzer. Despite a 27:28 defeat, Vardar ended the hopes of the three-time EHF Champions League winners and made it the VELUX EHF Champions League’s final destination due to the away-goal rule.
For the second time in a row, HC Vardar qualified for the VELUX EHF FINAL4 – and can still hope to end the curse that has seen no champion defend their title at LANXESS arena. But Vardar were needlessly shaken in the second leg against THW Kiel, as the decision came right down to the final buzzer.
“We are very happy that we will play FINAL4 for the second consecutive year. We knew that Kiel have an excellent team, coach, support, history and tradition. We knew that by the last minute the result would be very uncertain, but we had sporting happiness in the end,” said Vardar wing Timur Dibirov. “We have worked hard all season and this is a reward for this hard work. Now we have a chance to write history.”
It took THW Kiel less than two minutes to take the lead needed to book their ticket to Cologne, as they created an early advantage at 2:0. When the German side pulled ahead to 3:0, Jane Sandanski Arena was subdued somewhat, before the roaring atmosphere returned. With four answered goals (including the first after nearly six minutes), Vardar took the lead, 4:3, and with it, much more confidence.
The hosts’ defence was more stable and movable, while Kiel could not find the gaps to score and fell behind 5:8 in minute 13. On the other hand, Vardar left back Vuko Borozan was on fire.
But the defending champions had not broken Kiel’s resistance yet. Led by the goals and assists of playmaker Miha Zarabec, and the saves of goalkeeper Andreas Wolff (who replaced Niklas Landin quite early), the ‘Zebras’ leveled the result at 10:10. At the break, nothing had changed – at 13:13, Vardar could almost see their ticket to Cologne.
The Macedonian side paved their way to the VELUX EHF FINAL4 at the start of the second half. Netting three straight times for 21:17, Vardar gained their first four-goal advantage of the two quarter-final legs, causing THW coach Alfred Gislason to call a timeout.
The Icelandic coach clearly found the right words: Within less than two minutes, his side scored a 3:0 series, and it was Vardar coach Raul Gonzalez’s turn to use his green timeout card. The match was on the edge again, as Kiel struggled hard to catch up, but Vardar were clever enough to keep control. With less than four minutes to go and a 27:25 lead for the hosts, Gislason took his final timeout.
While Vardar were running low on energy in the final minutes, Kiel started to use an extremely offensive defense, causing several turnovers. A triple strike from Patrick Wiencek, Nikola Bilyk and Niclas Ekberg provided THW with the 28:27 advantage – and one more goal would have meant the ticket to Cologne. But Vardar remained cold as ice in their final attack, celebrating the place at the FINAL4 after having scored one more goal away than their German opponents.