While Baltic Handball League is still suspended due to the grave situation with COVID-19 in the Baltic countries, at least two of the three national teams linked to BHL played two EHF EURO 2022 qualifying games. And both – Estonia and Latvia – claimed first points in the Qualifying Phase 2 of the competition.
Estonia had already lost to Austria and Germany in November, while Latvia only started their campaign to qualify for EHF EURO 2022, as the original opening matches two months ago were postponed. Lithuania did not play in January, having lost to Iceland and Portugal in the first rounds.
Defence the key for Estonia’s success
Familiar to all BHL participants, Mesikäpa Hall in Põlva on this occasion looked empty without spectators, but was still filled with emotion, especially at the end of the match. Estonia missed several key players, as Mait Patrail, Dener Jaanimaa, Jürgen Rooba and Alfred Timmo were not available, while Bosnia and Herzegovina arrived in full strength.
Estonians showed resilience and despite losing first half 14:11, put up a great fight in the second half. Incredible defence, led by Viljandi HC’s Rasmus Ots in goal was the key. But had coach Thomas Sivertsson’s tactics to replace Ots with a seventh field player worked well in attack.
Left back Karl Toom was in fine form again, having scored 15 goals against Austria and Germany. Left wing Kaspar Lees was another menace to Bosnians, scoring all five of his counter-attacking moves. Estonia turned the game around and took a very important 24:21 win with Toom and Lees both scoring eight goals.
Four days later in Bugojno, Estonia’s defence worked well again, but the visitors struggled in attack. Bosnia and Herzegovina managed to win 21:19, though the minimal advantage in head-to-head games may help Estonia in the end if it comes to that. Lees and Toom were again the best scorers for Estonia, this time with four goals.
“Overall, we have to be satisfied with the week. We played a very strong opponent with recent EURO 2020 experience and missed several players. I was impressed with the fighting spirit and teamwork of our players, as well as with the defensive display in both games. I believe we are developing and moving in the right direction,” commented Sivertsson.
Latvia bounced back after heavy defeat
Latvian national team started their campaign to repeat the historic qualification to EURO 2020 finals with a double-header against upcoming Italy. New coaching staff includes head coaches of two BHL clubs, as the new boss is ZRHK Tenax Dobele’s Sandris Veršakovs and he is assisted by Andrejs Narnickis, daily in charge of SK Latgols Ludza.
Veršakovs gave international debut to five players, four of which came from BHL clubs. Latvia had managed to call-up only four foreign-based players, but their biggest star Dainis Krištopans was present. The opening match in Chieti was almost a one-man show, as the visitors struggled to beat TSV Hannover-Burgdorf’s goalkeeper Domenico Ebner.
Italy took a 28:17 victory, as Latgols’ Endijs Kušners made history by becoming the first player representing Latvia at the age of 17 and furthermore, being the best scorer with five goals. For the return match in Valmiera, Latvians were happy to get some experience back in the squad with Ingars Dude, Maris Veršakovs and Nils Kreicbergs returning.
It paid dividends – Latvia was up 17:14 at half-time, fell behind in the second, but fought back and eventually took an important 31:29 win. 34-year-old line player Dude brushed aisde his back problems and scored eight goals, while Krištopans added six, Veršakovs and Kreicbergs five.
“We missed so many players in the first game, plus Dainis arrived directly to Italy. So there was no time to train properly with the full squad. Most of the players are also without match practice, but for the second match we managed to field a stronger squad and win. Italy has seriously improved and has an excellent goalkeeper in Ebner,” said head coach Sandris Veršakovs.
On photo: Goalkeeper Rasmus Ots and defence were the key factors in Estonia beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in EHF EURO 2022 qualifier. (Photo: Helin Potter).