THW Kiel beat Barcelona to clinch Champions League glory

Niclas Ekberg scored eight goals and Sander Sagosen seven to propel Kiel to victory in the 2019/20 EHF FINAL4 in Cologne.

By Ken Browne

THW Kiel are the 2019-20 EHF Champions League winners after a 33-28 win over Barcelona in Cologne on Tuesday (29 December).

The Zebras lifted the 'Golden Arm' trophy in the Lanxess-Arena, the first team to win it three times in its current format.

Hendrik Pekeler won the MVP award for his excellence in attack and defence with eight goals from Swedish handball star Niclas Ekberg and seven from Sander Sagosen lifting Kiel to victory.

Danish goalkeeper Niklas Landin also was key in this Kiel triumph making 14 saves, and is now Olympic champion, World champion, and Final4 winner.

Earlier PSG beat Veszprém 31:26 to finish third in this rescheduled Final4.

It represented vindication for 38-year-old coach Filip Jicha and star signing Sagosen who have received criticism after an inconsistent start to the 2020-21 season.

In 2010, Jicha was a player when Kiel were the first to lift the famous arm. Now they're the last, with the trophy retired after today's final.

For Sander Sagosen, who started the 2019-20 season as a PSG player helping them to get to this Final4, winning his first Champions League title is a dream come true.

"This gold medal is what I dreamed about. I am unbelievably proud of this team" - Sander Sagosen to EHF

The Champions League final was the second match in 24 hours for both teams and, though Kiel had the tougher semi-final - needing extra time to progress past Veszprem on Monday - the German side were superior in the final.

Barcelona may have made light work of Mikkel Hansen's PSG in yesterday's semi-final, but Kiel kept the ball better and made the extra man work in attack with Sagosen finding his range early.

With Niklas Landin pulling off saves as good as goals, Kiel had the momentum from early on and Ekberg lived up to his 'Rocketman' nickname with five goals in the first half, while Pekeler was simply everywhere.

Kiel led 13-9 after 19 minutes thanks to almost 94% shooting efficiency with Patrick Wiencek as uncompromising as ever in defence.

After the game Landin said Kiel came into this final supremely confident.

"We were full of confidence that we could beat any team in the world," he told EHF post-match.

"We had an incredible defence, just when you see that Barça scored less than 30 goals - what they usually never do. We played with full speed and when we were ahead by three, four goals we knew that we could win.

"We caused less mistakes than Barça and were fully focused in our heads until the very last minute."

Two comebacks too much for Barcelona

But Barcelona dug deep and by half-time they were level at 15-15 thanks to academy graduate Aleix Gomez, who scored four times from five shots, and 23-year-old French talent Dika Mem bagging three goals.

Kiel pulled away at the start of the second half much as they did in the first, and they led 26-21 going into the final quarter with Steffen Weinhold netting crucial goals.

Even when Barça thought they had a break, Rune Dahmke would pull off a superman interception, or Landin would shut the door.

Gomez rattled the crossbar with a late penalty to leave Kiel three in front with time ticking down, a harsh ending for the man who led the Barça resistance throughout.

Neither the experienced Aron Palmarsson nor the much-lauded Blaz Janc came up with the performance their team needed and it slipped away from the blaugranas.

Barcelona were unable to repeat their first-half revival as they suffered their first defeat in 23 EHF Champions League matches.

This is the third time the Catalan club has lost a final in Cologne against a German team, after losing to Kiel in 2010 and to Hamburg in 2013.

Today I have to congratulate the team of Kiel, they play perfect. They stopped us in attack, in contra-attack, they played perfect defence with an amazing Landin.  Blaz Janc, Barça right wing, to EHF

Kiel had big performances throughout the side, and didn't even need the best from Croatian superstar Domagoj Duvnjak, the quiet genius who's always willing to let others take the limelight.

Duvnjak was happy to award the medals to his teammates on the podium as part of the coronavirus measures, the celebrations only beginning in Cologne.

Filip Jicha, Kiel head coach, lifts the winners trophy after the EHF Champions League final 4 final between Barca Lassa v THW Kiel at Lanxess Arena on December 29, 2020 in Cologne, Germany. (Photo by Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

The Filip Jicha redemption

Losses already in the 2020-21 season to Barcelona (twice) in the Champions League leaving them fifth in their group, and a current placing of third in the Bundesliga (albeit with games in hand) have exerted some pressure on Kiel boss Jicha.

Victory will be all the sweeter for him, quietening talk that he's too young, inexperienced, or tactically naive.

In the semi-final, PSG tried to use the 7 on 6 tactic against Barcelona but were punished and picked off because of stray passing and unsure shooting.

No such worry for Kiel who were locked in from the start and ruthlessly efficient.

Jicha's out-thought Xavi Pascual who went 7v6 with eight minutes to go but Kiel held firm.

In the end it was joy for Jicha who became only the third person to win the Champions League as a player and coach, 10 years after he was top scorer when Kiel won the first FINAL4 against Barcelona.

More handball? Coming right up

With the Women's Euro 2020 and this Champions League finale in December there's more to come for handball fans as the Egypt 2021 Men's World Championships begins on January 13th.

With Sagosen, Duvnjak, Pekeler, Landin and Ekberg energised by this win, Egypt will give us a chance to watch some of the best in the business on a world stage once more with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon.