Six talking points after we establish the elite eight
The play-offs are now done and dusted in the EHF Champions League Women, with only eight teams remaining in the competition. We go with a fine-toothed comb over what happened, what trends emerged and how the future looks for those involved.
Five countries send teams to the quarter-finals
Five nations are represented in the quarter-finals this season, a drop from the seven countries which had a team in this phase of the EHF Champions League Women last season, with Denmark, Hungary and Romania each boasting two teams between the last eight in the European top competitions this season. This is the first time since the quarter-finals were introduced in the 2014/15 season with only five countries in this phase of the competition, with the previous lowest being six in the 2015/16 season when Romania and Hungary each had two teams.
This time around, Denmark have Team Esbjerg and Odense making it through, while Rapid Bucuresti joined CSM Bucuresti, and FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria made it two out of two for Hungary, as Györi Audi ETO KC were already in the quarter-finals. Norway and France are the countries with only one team in this phase of the competition, but both Metz Handball and Vipers Kristiansand had byes in the play-offs, winning their groups earlier in the season.
Five sides return to the quarter-finals
The four sides which were already qualified for the quarter-finals from the group phase – Vipers Kristiansand, CSM Bucuresti, Metz Handball and Györi Audi ETO KC – return to the quarter-finals after having already been present last season. They are joined by Team Esbjerg, who made it to this phase of the competition for the second season in a row, underlining their growing role in European handball. In total, five of the eight sides which made the quarter-finals last season are returning in this stage of the European premium competition, with three other sides coming in strong to try and secure a place at the EHF FINAL4 in Budapest.
For Rapid Bucuresti, this is their maiden trip to the quarter-finals; Odense Handbold made it for the second time in their history, while FTC are here for the fifth time, but both sides qualified for this phase for the first time since the 2018/19 season, breaking a four-season wait.
Maiden quarter-finals berth for Rapid
But how about Rapid? Down five goals after the first leg against Krim, they were heading in the second match with a second chance, despite their coaching change, with Kim Rasmussen replacing Carlos Viver three weeks ago. However, the Romanian champions had an ace up their sleeve. They had to fight hard just to play in the Polivalenta Arena, with a table tennis national competition scheduled for this week. Yet they found a solution and the arena, which was already sold out since February, was rocking for 60 minutes.
It was suffocating at times, with Krim challenging for the quarter-finals spot, as a seven-goal lead evaporated and turned into three. But both Rapid and left back Sorina Grozav, debutants in the competition, found a new gear and went over the line with a 30:24 win, which translated to a 54:53 aggregate win. In their first-ever season, with an astonishing fandom taking the matters into their own hands, Rapid made it to the quarter-finals and set up a crunch clash with the reigning champions, Vipers Kristiansand. It was a job well done for the Romanian side, which won seven games and drew another on their home court, making it their main weapon so far in this season.
Reistad delivers once again
The last three years have been nothing short of amazing for Norwegian left back Henny Reistad, who became a two-time European champion, a world champion and was named the MVP of the EHF FINAL4 in 2021 and the MVP of the EHF EURO 2022. In the EHF Champions League Women, Reistad was the All-star Young Player of the Year in 2021 and is now primed to write another page of history, after topping the scoring charts after the play-offs.
With 14 goals scored in Esbjerg’s 55:49 aggregate win over Brest Bretagne Handball, Reistad enhanced her advantage in the top goal scorer standings, with 121 goals, 16 more than CSM left back Cristina Neagu and 21 goals over FTC right back Katrin Klujber. Until now, Reistad has averaged 7.5 goals per game, while her closest opponent, Neagu, is on the same average. As Neagu and Reistad will go head-to-head in the quarter-finals, the Norwegian left back will need her team to eliminate CSM to be virtually sure of securing her first top goal scorer title.
Season set to be the highest-scoring
Knockout handball is totally different from the handball played in the group phase and that was on display during the eight matches played in the play-offs, with an average of 53 goals scored per game, the highest-scoring match being the second leg between Odense and Storhamar, which ended in a 30:30 draw. It is a step back from the group phase, yet this is still on par to be the highest-ever scoring edition of the EHF Champions League Women, as 6,788 goals have been scored so far in the 120 matches played.
The average translates roughly to 56.57 goals per game, a small uptick from the previous season, which had 56.53 goals per game, but tighter games are expected in the quarter-finals, with well-balanced games pitting together the best eight teams which are still alive.
One nail-biter and three clear wins
Four teams left the competition in this phase, joining DHK Banik Most, SG BBM Bietigheim, Kastamonu Belediyesi GSK and RK Lokomotiva Zagreb, which were eliminated in the group phase. Krim Mercator Ljubljana are surely the highest-profile victim, especially due to the way they were eliminated, a single goal separating them from a penalty shoot-out against Rapid. But others were not so lucky, as Buducnost was the team that absorbed the largest aggregate loss against FTC, 55:46. The Montenegrin side also scored the fewest goals, with their progression under coach Bojana Popovic proving slow and difficult.
Brest Bretagne Handball also struggled as they lost both games against Esbjerg by a three-goal margin. The French side had a plethora of injuries in a nightmare season, and will definitely go back to the drawing board to create a better side next season. For their first season in the EHF Champions League Women, Storhamar did as well as could be expected, finishing sixth in their group and losing by eight goals against Odense in the play-offs, but they will need better experience to compete in the future.