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27/01/2016

Miracle in Krakow: Croatia sweep Poland on the way to the medal round

REVIEW: Against all odds, the determined Croatians stunned the hosts to reach the semi-finals of the EHF EURO 2016 with a landslide win

Photo: Uros Hocevar

History was written in TAURON Arena in Krakow when Croatia steamrolled hosts Poland 37:23 to reach the EHF EURO 2016 semi-finals. Croatia came into the final main round day as the most unlikely team from the four contenders in the Group 1 race for the medal-round ticket.

Croatia survived in the race thanks only to the first surprise of the evening, when Norway defeated France to book the first semi-final ticket of the group. Croatia faced a Herculean task: to beat Poland by at least ten goals, but from the very first minute they chased their goal and never looked back.

"This is amazing. It is like a dream," said Croatia's Manuel Strlek. "Before the match we said in the locker room: 'Let's go guys, let's play a good match and try to win and if there will be an opportunity we will take it'. And there was. We played a fantastic game."

Croatia’s reserve goalkeeper Ivan Stevanovic was awarded the best player of the match after collecting 13 saves from 35 shots, while Manuel Strlek, the left wing of Polish club KS Vive Tauron Kielce, was the top scorer of the match with 11 goals at 100%. Karol Bielecki and Michal Daszek led Poland with four goals each.

The 15,000 fans in the sold-out TAURON Arena had to wait a long time to be rewarded for the excellent atmosphere in the stands. The host team had a nightmare opening, not scoring their first goal until after nine minutes (0:3), and their second after 15 minutes (2:5).

It was only thanks to their best player on the court, goalkeeper Slawomir Szmal, that the Croatians did not create an even bigger lead in the opening minutes. While Poland’s attacks were slow and cumbersome, their opponents took advantage of fast breaks and efficient combinations in the attack.

"Nothing went as it should have gone. I would like to apologise to all the fans – those in the arena and those watching the game in front of the TV screens," said Poland's Piotr Chrapkowski. "Our play was dramatic in every possible way. It is hard to say what happened."

Supported by Stevanovic, providing the best goalkeeping from their side so far at the tournament and who started in the goal for the first time in Poland, Croatia laid the foundations for their sensational victory by the end of the first half when they led 15:10.

After the break they continued the destruction of the home team, who only scored their first goal of the second half after ten minutes. Croatia reached the difference of eleven goals after 37 minutes, and what had been the wildest fantasy before the starting whistle suddenly started to become a reality.

As the Polish side crumbled Zeljko Babic’s team reached an unbelievable 17-goal margin with 13 minutes to go. Even though Poland woke up a bit thanks to their resiliently supportive ‘eighth man’ in the stands, Croatia controlled their huge advantage to pull off one of the greatest miracles in handball history.

"Norway gave us a chance and we believed that it would be possible. We did everything that was possible to do," said Croatia captain Marko Kopljar. "We almost played the perfect match."

written by Vlado Brindzak / cg