Last year was heart wrenching for HC Vardar. After a third semifinal lost, this time against a debutant in the EHF Champions League, it looked as though some kind of curse was raining over them. But there was no such thing as a curse. Whatever the explanations, this time around things were different for the team conducted by Irina Dibirova, who now defeated the no longer debutants, rather defending champions CSM Bucuresti by 33-38 in a very convincing fashion.
It looked as though HC Vardar were not going to let things slip away once again. From beginning to end, the Macedonian champions displayed a tough defence and a fast attack that put CSM Bucuresti under a lot of pressure. After only six minutes of the match, and with a negative score of 1-4, Per Johansson called the first timeout to re-group the team, but it did not work as the goals kept on coming and now the difference extended to 1-7.
Things were looking good for HC Vardar as they continued to broaden the gap. By the time the clock marked 24:47, they scored their 20th goal, while they had only received 9. It was not only the defence who was delivering a good performance, the goal was well guarded by Amandine Leynaud, possibly one of Vardar’s most consistent players throughout the season. But there was another factor as well, and it was Bucuresti’s low scoring percentage. While they were able to create the chances, their shots were either outside of the 2×3 goal or straight into the goalkeepers. The first half finished with an astonishing 13-21 score. And on the attack, the player who had gone inadverted during the previous three semifinals, Andrea Penezić, was now enjoying herself, scoring and gaining self confidence in what seemed to be a much more ‘relaxed’ performance. Along with Jovanka Radicević, the Croatian was the top scorer for the Macedonian side with 7 goals. French international Gnonsiane Niombla was top scorer of the match with 8 goals.
And the fact that she looked ‘relaxed’ doesn’t mean that she was lacking concentration, on the contrary, it was a positive and contagious attitude, as if Vardar was no longer ‘afraid’ to take control and win their first semifinal in four years. As Camilla Herrem would explain, “I don’t think so much has changed (from previous years), but it looked like the girls were much more calmer than on the last Final 4 when there were a little insecure. But today everyone was playing with their shoulders down, and it looks like they were having fun and were relaxed, that’s why we had such a great first half”.
Two things could’ve happened in the second period: a change in CSM Bucuresti’s spirit or a relentless HC Vardar in need to secure their ticket to their first ever Tippmix EHF Final 4 final. Although it was a bit more messier than the first half, the Macedonians chose not to slow down and in the process they made quite a few mistakes that could’ve costed them a dramatic comeback from the Romanians. But the gap was way too big for the reigning champions to overcome. They did get closer in the scoreboard, but never too close to really threaten Vardar.
“We gave a very bad impression as a team, we haven’t played like this in any other match during the season. The fact that we were unable to turn it around on such an important day like today is very complicated and I consider that we haven’t been in our level today”, said Carmen Martín after the match. And added that although they ‘woke up’ on the second half “it was too late, when you have a ten goal deficit it’s impossible to turn ir around”.
There was one player whose smile could be seen from afar. Andrea Lekić expressed after the match: “I’m very happy and proud of my team. We were much calmer than other years, we were feeling that we were ready, that’s it; we showed it and we knew exactly what we had to do during the 60 minutes. There was a huge pressure on us to go to the final today and I think we played in an extraordinarily way”. The Serbian ace, who did not look at the scoreboard until two minutes before the end of the match (“because I remember what happened to Kielce last year”), will finally be in a Tippmix EHF Final 4 in which she will face old teammates from Györi Audi ETO KC, with which she lifted her one and only EHFCL title. Will tomorrow bring a second star for her? We’ll see when the Danish couple Karina Christiansen and Lina Hesseldal Hansen blow the whistle at 17:45 in the Papp László Budapest Sportaréna.