Five things we learned from the EHF Final Four

Landin, Sagosen, Duvnjak, Hansen, Mem... The Champions League Final4 in Cologne was stacked with stars and pointers to Egypt 2021 and Tokyo 2020.
By Ken Browne

Two days of holiday handball put the stars in the spotlight as THW Kiel stole the show in Cologne and lifted the 'Famous Arm' trophy for a third time.

World-class performances from prolific scorers Niclas Ekberg and Sander Sagosen, MVP Hendrik Pekeler, and hero 'keeper Niklas Landin, lifted 'The Zebras' to Champions League glory over Barcelona in the final.

Meanwhile, Mikkel Hansen's PSG minus Nikola Karabatic crashed out in the semi-finals.

But what does it all mean for the Egypt 2021 World Championships and Tokyo 2020 this coming summer?

Let's take a look.

1. Niklas Landin & Kevin Møller: worth their weight in gold

Much talk coming into the final between Barça and Kiel centred around the form of Barcelona goalkeeping duo Gonzalo de Vargas Perez and Kevin Møller, but Niklas Landin was the man of the moment in Cologne.

That's great news for Denmark who have both Landin and Møller in their squad for Egypt, giving coach Nikolaj Jacobsen options to rest and interchange 'keepers without any drop in quality.

A Møller masterclass helped Barça beat Kiel 32-26 on 19 November, his 19 saves earning him the match MVP.

He was outstanding against PSG in the semi-final too, making eight saves from 12 shots in the first half.

But the grand finale belonged to Denmark's other superstar stopper, 2019 IHF World Player of the Year Landin.

His 14 saves built a platform for Kiel and sent waves of confidence coursing through the team.

Even opposition players were full of praise with Barcelona's Slovenian star Blaz Janc saying, "They played a perfect defence with an amazing Landin."

"We were full of confidence that we could beat any team in the world," was Landin's hot take after winning the Champions League.

With he and Møller in goal, reigning Olympic and world champions Denmark may just feel the same in Egypt and Tokyo.

2. Sander Sagosen delivers on the big occasion

If there was ever any doubt that Norway's leading man could be a match-winner on the biggest stages, that doubt evaporated in Cologne on Tuesday night.

Kiel's epic semi-final with Veszprem on Monday wasn't Sagosen's best game ever as he banked just five goals from 14 shots and was guilty of trying to do too much in the second half.

But the 25-year-old showed he is a fast learner with reserves of mental strength, going from that to a stronger performance in Tuesday's final.

He scored seven goals from 11 shots against Barcelona, picked his moments to go one-on-one far better and connected with team-mates more.

Sagosen came out like a raging bull in the first half of the final: fired up, smashing into people and picking up two two-minute suspensions in the first half.

Barça coach Xavi Pascual even called a time-out and told Dika Mem to go one-on-one with Sagosen to try and force a third two-minute suspension which would take him out of the game.

But the Norwegian sensation was disciplined enough not to let that happen and led the team with devastating back-court play and creativity in midfield..

Norway have come so close to glory in recent years with silver medals at the 2017 and 2019 Worlds and third place at last January's Euros.

Winning the Final4 is hugely significant for Sagosen who secured his first Champions League winner's medal and a taste of success at the very top table.

He wants more.

3. Domagoj Duvnjak: the hero of the hour

Whatever you need Domagoj Duvnjak for, he's there.

Struggling in the semi-final second half against Veszprem with Sagosen misfiring?

No problem - Duvnjak is there to step up and take steal after steal, and score four from six in the second half to guide Kiel to the final.

So now, in the final, Sagosen is red hot and you need someone to complement your other brilliant playmaker?

That's fine - Duvnjak is happy to let Sander be the hero while filling in at crucial moments and doing whatever the team needs to win.

Need someone to hand out Champions League medals to team-mates and staff on the podium?

Domagoj will do that too.

His semi-final display was reminiscent of his semi-final performance against Norway at Euro 2020 when he scored eight to Sagosen's 10 but Croatia made the final.

The Final4 reminded us once more that at 32, this national hero sees the bigger picture.

Duvnjak is in the prime of his career and Croatia could not ask for a more complete or humble leader going into 2021.

They'll need him at his best during the Olympic qualification tournament set for 12-14 March in a tough group with France, Portugal and Tunisia.

Domagoj Duvnjak lifts the 2019-20 Champions League trophy for Kiel at Lanxess Arena on December 29, 2020 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

4. Hendrick Pekeler: Germany's perfectionist

Traditionally a handball powerhouse, it's been a while since Germany have claimed top honours at the biggest international tournaments.

Their last Olympic gold came on home soil in 1936 with their last world title in 2007.

They did not really build on a successful Euro 2016 campaign, although they did beat Poland to take bronze at Rio 2016.

Kiel winning the Champions League is clearly a boost for the national team with eight home players in the squad.

Despite headlines often grabbed by Scandinavian stars and brilliant imports, Kiel has its own German standout in perpetual motion machine Hendrik Pekeler who took the Final4 MVP award.

He scored the winning goal in the semi-final against Veszprem and was unstoppable in the final, scoring four out of five as well as defending for all his life.

“For me, Hendrik Pekeler is always the MVP," said Kiel and Germany teammate Steffen Weinhold - who was also superb in the final.

"He is extremely clever, he has the physical capability and he is full of power, which he has proved in these 130 minutes here in Cologne."

Coach Alfred Gislason has signed up until 2022 and aims to take Germany back to the top of the world.

With players like Pekeler and Weinhold playing the way they are, Germany can be contenders in Egypt and at the Tokyo Games.

5. Nikola Karabatic: the good news

It's trite to say that double Olympic gold medallist, three-time IHF World Player of the Year, four-time world champion, and three-time European champion Nikola Karabatic leaves big shoes to fill.

But he does.

'The Beast' has been dominant both in attack and defence for so long now that his extra-terrestrial talents are the norm.

PSG struggled without him in Cologne, missing not just his goals and defensive presence, but also his leadership, experience, and organisational work.

Denmark's Mikkel Hansen is still arguably the best handball player in the world, but nullifying one top threat is much easier than two.

France does have plenty of rising talent however including Barcelona right back Dika Mem.

The 23-year-old looked a potential match winner in the first half against Kiel, scoring three goals and frustrating Sagosen, but made some poor decisions in the second half.

The good news is that Karabatic spoke to the EHF while he was cheering on PSG in Cologne, and said that he hopes to be back from his cruciate knee ligament tear in around May.

That gives him a couple of months to get back into shape for a shot at a third gold medal in Tokyo.