Six talking points after an action-packed preliminary round
Over half, or 36 of the 65 games scheduled in Hungary and Slovakia for the EHF EURO 2022, have now taken place. And half of the teams have been sent packing after an action-packed preliminary round, which saw some records falling in the European premium competition.
It seems like that the start of the EHF EURO 2022 was just hours ago, but after a first week packed with surprises, impressive comebacks and sublime performances on the court, it is high time to talk a bit of handball.
The underdogs bite again
During every EHF EURO edition, a team that is not slated to go all the way presses on and shocks more experienced opponents on their way to their best finish in the competition. The likes of Portugal at the EHF EURO 2020, the Czech Republic in 2018 or Iceland in 2010 all spring to mind and this is no different in Hungary and Slovakia, as two underdogs shook the competition right to its core when earning the main round berths in superb fashion.
The Netherlands, who made their debut two years ago and were out in the preliminary round, sounded the alarm when they finished second in group 5 of qualification phase 2, taking two wins against Poland and one against Slovenia.
They were handed a tough draw against Hungary, Iceland and Portugal in group B of the preliminary round, but surprisingly beat the hosts in the opening game and secured another precious win against Portugal at the buzzer to proceed to the main round on Tuesday night.
The Dutch start the main round with zero points, yet they are surely a team that Denmark, France, Croatia and Montenegro will dread playing against.
Another underdog who pushed over their limit was Russia, who secured their best start of the competition since 2000, when they won silver. A team that does not boast lots of experience swept their opponents away to clinch first place in group F, including an impressive 23:22 win against Norway.
Russia will now start group II with two points and they dream even further, as coach Velimir Petkovic has already stated that they can beat any other team at the EHF EURO 2022.
Smits comes of age at the EHF EURO 2022
As much as progressing to the main round was a huge surprise for the Netherlands, few would have predicted that they would boast the fifth-best attack in the competition, scoring 91 goals in three games with the top scorer of the EHF EURO 2022 in their ranks.
Two years ago, Kay Smits scored 22 goals in three games for the Dutch, becoming by far their top scorer in the European championships. But Smits did one better in the preliminary round in Budapest, carrying the Netherlands to the main round with an amazing 32-goal tally in his first three games.
No other player has ever scored more goals than Smits in the first three games of an EHF EURO, with the 24-year-old Dutch back besting the record set by Ukraine’s back Oleg Velykyy in 2000, when he scored 30 goals in the first three matches.
Smits has a good chance of becoming the top goal scorer of the tournament, holding a 12-goal advantage over Denmark’s Mikkel Hansen, Poland’s Arkadiusz Moryto and Montenegro’s Branko Vujovic, who tied for third place in the top goal scorer standings and are still active in the competition.
Austria’s Sebastian Frimmel, with 22 goals, was second behind Smits, but is on his way home after they were eliminated.
The rise in the number of goals scored
Speaking of goals, the EHF EURO 2022 has already produced 2,012 goals in the first 36 matches played in the competition, an average of 55.88 goals per game, more than 1.5 goals more than the average number of goals scored per game two years ago, 54.34.
In fact, it is the highest average of goals scored per game since 2010, when the 16 teams that were playing combined for 56.94 goals per game, but quite a long way out from the record scoring tournament, in Switzerland 2006, when the average was set at a whopping 59.23 goals per game.
With Germany (97 goals), Denmark (95 goals), France and Norway (92 goals each) and the Netherlands (91 goals) being the only five teams that averaged over 30 goals scored per game at the EHF EURO 2022, the highest scoring games were Poland’s victory against Austria, 36:31, Montenegro’s surprise win against Slovenia, 33:32 and Norway’s defeat of Lithuania, 35:29.
Spain rewrite history at EHF EURO 2022
Since the current format with a main round following the preliminary round was introduced at EHF EURO 2002, only one team, the reigning champions, Spain, progressed from the preliminary round each time, building an outstanding 11-tournament streak between the top 12 teams in Europe.
They did it with ease once again this year, by sweeping the Czech Republic, Sweden and Bosnia and Herzegovina aside on their way to the next phase of the competition. This also enabled them to build a 15-game unbeaten streak, dating back to 2018, the longest in the history of the EHF EURO.
Croatia are close behind in this respect, having qualified for the main round for the past 10 consecutive editions, only missing a main round berth in 2002, when they were eliminated in a group featuring Germany, France and Yugoslavia. France and Denmark also qualified 10 times for the main round, but both missed the train in 2020, when they were eliminated in the preliminary round.
Hosts fail to handle the pressure
Half of the teams starting the EHF EURO 2022 are now eliminated, with some high-profile victims packing their bags to go home. Probably the most surprising team to be eliminated from contention are Hungary, who were eyeing their best result in the competition, the first medal at the European premium tournament.
Eventually, the maths did not add up for the hosts, who went out swinging after the preliminary round, despite playing at home in front of over 20,000 fans.
Their loss against the Netherlands in the opening game was disheartening and, ultimately, the pressure was too big for the hosts, who were limited by several injuries, the most important being the one suffered by key line player Bence Bánhidi, struggling to match his output from two years ago due to his ankle problems.
After finishing sixth at the EHF EURO 2020, Portugal were also eliminated after losing all three matches in group B, while Slovenia also failed to make the main round for the first time since 2016, due to their unexpected 32:33 loss against Montenegro.
The tournament also ended early for Serbia, who lost to Croatia and France, while co-hosts Slovakia are also out, despite winning their first-ever game at the EHF EURO, 31:26, against Lithuania. It is the first time that all the hosts have exited in the preliminary round since Switzerland failed to progress to the next phase in 2006.
Goalkeepers take their lion’s share
Goalkeepers are crucial in modern handball and good games from the shot-stoppers enable teams to improve their chances of winning a match. The argument was confirmed once again by numbers at the EHF EURO 2022, with the top two goalkeepers helping their teams remain unbeaten on their way to the main round.
Both France’s Vincent Gerard and Russia’s Victor Kireev saved 32 shots in the preliminary round, but Gerard’s efficiency (44 per cent) was slightly better than Kireev’s 42 per cent. Only Denmark (65 goals) conceded fewer goals than France (70), with Kevin Møller also making the podium in the saving efficiency, 38 per cent.
Møller was tied with the Czech Republic’s Tomas Mrkva, who was named the Grundfos Player of the Match twice in the preliminary round, as Mrkva made 36 saves, the largest amount in the competition after the first three matches.
However, Mrkva’s antics were not enough to see his team through, as Sweden progressed to the next phase due to a superior goal difference – +8 to Czech Republic’s +6 – after the two teams drew 27:27 in the last game of group E in Bratislava.