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Baltic Handball League
Away wins all around in the quarter-final first legs
First legs of the quarter-finals in the 2019/20 Baltic Handball League provided exactly what was expected – some very exciting matches, loads of emotions and drama. Curiously, all the away teams won and thus Cocks Riihimäki, ZRHK Tenax Dobele and Dragunas Klaipeda have an advantage going into the second leg, played at home.
The weekend opened on Saturday with neighbours clashing in Vilnius, where VHC Šviesa hosted ZRHK Tenax Dobele. Either of the teams had not qualified for the Final Four in the last eight seasons, so there was much at stake. And in previous three years the matches had always been tight with Šviesa winning four and Tenax two of the six encounters.
Šviesa made a decisive break early in the second half
The match started well for the hosts, who had early one-goal leads until seventh minute, when Šarunas Ugianskis made it 5:4. But then Tenax's 17-year-old goalkeeping talent Martinš Ozolinš locked the goal and throw away the key for a dozen minutes.
The visitors just kept scoring, goals coming from five different players and Tenax had a 10:5 lead by 18th minute. Then it was Šviesa's turn and after two goals from Laurynas Palevičius the advantage was cut to two. The experienced left-hander also twice brought hosts back to one-goal deficit, but Tenax went to the break in a 15:13 lead.
The start of the second half belonged to the guests, who defended very well and were especially skillful using fast counter-attacks. Nikita Pančenko made it 21:14 in the 35th minute. Nine minutes later it was Pančenko again, who extended the lead to eight goals. Šviesa did not stop fighting, even if it was hard to see them coming back.
January-signing Karolis Bliuvas started to take more responsibility and slowly the recent Lithuanian cup-winner was grinding themselves back. Tenax eventually took a 32:27 win and will be very hopeful ahead of the home leg. Maris Veršakovs scored nine goals for winners, while Bliuvas recorded seven for the hosts.
"It was a very good match, fast and interesting handball. We lost a lot of energy in the defence and can play better. I am sure nothing is decided in this tie, Šviesa is a very good team and we have to play at our very best at home in order to qualify for the Final Four," commented top scorer Veršakovs in the post-match interview.
Comfortable win for Cocks, very tight match in Põlva
Estonia was the venue for two other quarter-finals on Sunday. HC Kehra/Horizon Pulp&Paper hosted Cocks Riihimäki and in the beginning could only stop the visitors by force, but Teemu Tamminen did not make mistakes from penalty line and Cocks had a 4:1 lead. It took time, but in the 21st minute Vladyslav Naumenko brought Kehra back on level terms, making it 9:9.
The emotions boiled over and at one point Cocks only had three field players in play, but Kehra could not use the advantage and never once took a lead in the match. When back with full squads, Cocks used their longer and quality bench and run away with a 27:19 victory. Nico Rönnberg and Naumenko were best scorers of the teams with six goals each.
As expected, the clash between Serviti Põlva and Dragunas Klaipeda was a very tight one, as all their previous encounters. The hosts had an early two-goal lead, but had trouble stopping Deividas Virbauskas, who turned the advantage to visitors and Lukas Simenas' goal took Dragunas to a break 17:14 up.
At best, Lithuanian league leaders extended the lead to four goals after Benas Butkus made it 21:17 in the 36th minute and 18-year-old goalkeeper Mantas Stankaitis produced some stunning saves. But it was Serviti's two goalkeepers who stepped up in the final part of the match, as both Eston Varusk and Jürgen Lepasson started to stop everything thrown their way.
In the 58th minute Tõnis Kase finally brought a draw, 28:28 to the scoreboard, Varusk made another great save, but it was Butkus, who scored in the final seconds, giving Dragunas a slim 29:28 advantage heading to the second leg. Again, six goals was the amount for top scorers, Henri Sillaste for Serviti, Simenas and Žanas Gabrielius Virbauskas for Dragunas.
On photo: As expected, there was fighting for every ball in the Serviti v Dragunas quarter-final. (Foto: Helin Potter).