Handball Champions League
Last season, France dominated the Champions League with teams from the country occupying three of the four final positions. Will the country deliver another winner in 2018/2019 or will someone else step up to the plate..?
Elite sport moves in waves, with certain countries regularly enjoying their moments in the sun.
Even when you think their dominance will go unchecked, though, there’s always a way for the cycle to end, whether it’s American tennis players in the Wimbledon men’s singles in the 1990s or Spain’s footballers from 2008-2012.
In handball’s Champions League, 2017/18 was all about France: the country had produced just one finalist all decade, but last season was responsible for three of the final four in Nantes, Paris Saint-Germain and eventual champions Montpelier.
So, is this the start of a dynasty, or can the rest of Europe close the gap before it properly opens?
The presence of Nantes and Montpelier in last year’s final could lead us to draw one of two conclusions: In camp A, you will have those who look at the two unlikely finalists (both were underdogs in their semi-final ties) and decide the success was a one-off.
In camp B, however, are those who will point to the match-up as evidence of the strength in depth of French handball.
Montpelier have kept much of their victorious squad together, with Nantes showing similar continuity and PSG adding Raúl González, the coach who led Vardar to Champions League glory in 2017.
Is that a sign of further dominance? And, if not, who could upset the party in the 2018-19 season?
Rhein-Neckar Löwen are an obvious contender, having gone 1st-1st-2nd in the last three German domestic seasons, but have struggled to translate that form to continental competition.
The team from Mannheim was left choosing between the Bundesliga and the Champions League last season, opting for the former and sending out a weakened team against Vive Targi Kielce and suffering elimination in the last 16, but full-strength selections suffered the same fate in the previous two European campaigns, both times by a margin of a single point.
They have bolstered their squad this season, though, adding 2017 finalists Jesper Nielsen and Ilija Abutović, and will hope to bring an end to their frustrating streak of last-16 exits – an opening victory over Barça can’t hurt.
Flensburg, who pipped the lions to last season’s German title, can’t be ruled out either.
They have started the 2018/19 Bundesliga campaign in fine form, going toe-to-toe with their rivals through the first four games, and with Nantes and Paris Saint-Germain among their group stage opponents it won’t take long for us to determine whether or not they’re a force to be reckoned with.
Flensburg have recruited heavily from Scandinavia in the off-season with recruits including a new goalkeeper in Norway’s Torbjørn Bergerud, but success this season will come down to how quickly their young squad can kick into gear.
Finally we have Barça Lassa themselves, who have added Ludovic Fabregas after the Frenchman played his part in Montpelier’s title run last season.
The Catalan outfit are unrivalled domestically – you have to go back to 2010 for the last time another team won the Spanish title – but haven’t got beyond the semi-finals since 2015’s triumph extended their record to nine European titles.
Could 2019 be the year they write their names into history by becoming the first ever handball club to reach double figures in European trophies? Only time will tell.