Main Round Group II: No room for mistake in a three-way tussle

13 Dec. 2021

Main Round Group II: No room for mistake in a three-way tussle

Six of the eight quarter-finals berths have been awarded after the first five games at the 25th IHF Women’s World Championship, but there is still everything to play for in Group II where the last match day will decide the final two teams that will proceed to the knockout phase.

The three-way tussle between the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden has been passionate to watch, from their high-scoring wins against Kazakhstan and Puerto Rico, to the draws between the teams in question. With another episode of the crunch rivalry between the reigning world champions and the reigning European champions looming, who will be the odd team out from this amazing trio?

Puerto Rico vs Kazakhstan 15:30 CET

The two sides were on the receiving ends of some of the worst defeats in history at the IHF Women’s World Championship, with Kazakhstan fresh off a 15:61 drubbing at the hands of the reigning champions, Netherlands, on Saturday in Castelló.

Puerto Rico themselves lost by 40 against the Netherlands, 15:55, and by 38 against Sweden, 10:48, in the preliminary round, while also conceding a 36-goal loss against Norway, 7:43, and a 23-goal loss against Romania on Saturday, 20:43.

However, the North American and the Caribbean champions secured their sole win at Spain 2021 against an Asian side, Uzbekistan, 30:24, which enabled them to secure the main round spot.

The winner will secure fifth place in Group II, with the two sides tied at zero points, with Kazakhstan boasting a better goal difference, -130, than Puerto Rico’s -137. Therefore, both Kazakhstan and Puerto Rico will try to finish on 20th place in the competition, which could be one of the best finishes ever for the two sides in the world flagship handball competition.

“We won plenty of experience from these games at the IHF Women’s World Championship, so we are now aiming to win the last match in the competition, against Puerto Rico,” said Kazakhstan’s coach, Lyazzat Ishanova, after the 15:61 loss against the Netherlands on Saturday.

Both of Puerto Rico’s wins at the IHF Women’s World Championship came against Asian sides. Prior to their success against Uzbekistan, the sole win of Puerto Rico was precisely against Kazakhstan, 30:27, in the preliminary round at Denmark 2015, as Jailene Maldonado and Nathalys Ceballos, both of whom are still in the roster at Spain 2021, combined for 12 goals.

Sweden vs Romania 18:00 CET

There has been no shortage of drama in Sweden’s matches up until this point at Spain 2021, as the Scandinavian side are the only one to boast two draws, against the Netherlands and Norway, before their final main round match, against Romania.

Since finishing 11th last December at the Women's EHF EURO, Sweden have been on an upward trend under coach Tomas Axner’s leadership, finishing fourth at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and trying to break between the top-eight teams at the IHF Women’s World Championship for the third consecutive time.

Sweden lost heavily against Norway in the bronze-medal game at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, 19:36, but produced an amazing game on Saturday in Castelló, earning one point after a closely contested 30:30 draw, as left wing Olivia Mellegard scored with four seconds to go to tie the score.

A draw between the Netherlands and Norway with 32 goals or more scored by the two sides would see Sweden out regardless of a win in this match, while a 31:31 draw between the two European powerhouses will force Sweden to win by at least two goals to proceed to the quarter-finals.

Therefore, Sweden will be properly motivated against Romania, in a game where they are heavily favoured, both in aspect of their previous games in the competition and by the motivation instilled by their situation in the standings.

“It is difficult to see ourselves being out, in spite of a win against Romania and us not losing any game in the competition,” said Sweden’s line player Linn Blohm, who played one season in the Romanian league, for CS Minaur Baia Mare, before leaving this summer for Hungarian powerhouse Gyori Audi ETO KC.

The top scorer at Spain 2021, Sweden’s right wing, Nathalie Hagman, who scored 57 times in the first five games, also spent two years playing for Romanian powerhouse CSM Bucuresti, between 2017 and 2019.

On the other hand, Romania will look to take the positives from their 30:31 loss against the Netherlands in the first game of the main round and try to get the best result for them against Sweden. Yet their defence will be heavily tested, with Sweden scoring the second-most goals at Spain 2021, 210, only behind the Netherlands, who have scored 236 goals.

“Our objective is to finish on the best place we can now, therefore a good result against Sweden is a must. We know they are a very good team, how motivated are they, but we also want to prove ourselves,” said Romania’s coach, Adrian Vasile.

Sweden have won the last two competitive matches between the two sides, including a 34:22 drubbing in the main round at Japan 2019, with the same Mellegard leading the way with seven goals.

Netherlands vs Norway 20:30 CET

After the Netherlands’ emergence on the biggest scene of women’s handball, the clash between them and Norway has been one of the most intense rivalries in the past decade, with the two sides clashing in the IHF Women’s World Championship final, the Women's EHF EURO final and the bronze-medal game at the Olympic Games in the past six years.

This, however, is not a final per se, no medals will be awarded after the game, but the feeling is this could be the final game for one of the sides at Spain 2021, provided the game does not end in a high-scoring draw.

In fact, there is only one scenario where both teams are sure to proceed to the quarter-finals, a draw with more than 32 goals scored by each of the teams. If the final result is a 31:31 draw, then the Netherlands are through and Norway need Romania to lose by one goal to proceed.

Therefore, everything is on the table in this do-or-die clash that concludes Group II of the main round. With both teams ready to pounce, it could come down to the small details.

But Norway are still confident and with a win against the reigning champions, they could both win the group and eliminate the Netherlands from contention. Therefore, it is all in the Scandinavian side’s hands.

“I was annoyed with the draw against Sweden, but there is no point in lamenting about this. We have a new game against the Netherlands and the time is short, we need to be prepared,” said Norway’s coach Thorir Hergeirsson according to Norwegian tv station TV2.

Recent history shows that Norway have dominated the Netherlands, taking 11 wins in their mutual 15 games, including the crucial aforementioned IHF Women’s World Championship final, the EHF EURO final and the bronze-medal game at the Olympic Games.

But the Dutch side won the last game at the IHF Women’s World Championship, 30:28, in the group phase at Japan 2019, paving their way to the first-ever gold medal in the competition.

This, however, will be different. The Netherlands have scored the most goals in the competition, 236, 43 goals more than Norway, who are third in the top attacking standings. But the Scandinavian side have conceded the fewest goals at Spain 2021, 86 in five games, 22 less than the Netherlands.

Eventually, the game could also become a battle between goalkeepers, but the Netherlands and Norway are also tied there, with Katrine Lunde and Tess Wester, the top options for the two sides, on the fifth place in the top goalkeeper standings, with a 44% saving efficiency in their first five matches.

Photos: RFEBM / Á. Bermejo