Opole ready to enjoy new chapter in their history
When KPR Gwardia Opole and KS Azoty-Pulawy SA were paired against each other in qualification round 3 of the Men's EHF Cup, there was both bright and sad news for handball fans in Poland. Only one side could go further – but it also guaranteed the participation of a Polish club in the group phase.
In a hard-fought duel, Rafal Kuptel’s young and hungry team won by only one goal, opening a brand-new chapter in the club’s history with this achievement, and it seems that finding their place among European teams is a natural step.
The team will certainly do their best to enjoy the experience and learn as much as possible.
Three questions before the Men’s EHF Cup group phase:
What is Opole’s young team capable of achieving?
Everything. Opole have a young, ambitious team that always fights until the end.
In May 2019, in the semi-final first leg in the Polish league play-offs, Rafal Kuptel’s players created a huge sensation in Polish handball by becoming the first team to defeat PGE VIVE Kielce in three years, breaking the Polish champions’ wonderful 103-match winning streak in the Superliga.
Kielce took revenge in the second leg, but Opole eventually claimed the bronze medal – reaching the podium for the first time in 55 years.
What will be crucial for Opole in the group phase?
The goalkeepers’ performances will be crucial for Opole. Known for having a very high efficiency in his team’s most difficult matches, experienced goalkeeper Adam Malcher has been chosen as the Polish league’s best goalkeeper three times in a row in recent years.
Young, talented wingers will be responsible for fast counter attacks, but the team will play without injured right wing Michal Scislowicz. And injured right back Przemysław Zadura may return during the group phase.
What does qualifying for the EHF Cup group phase mean to Opole?
It is the first time in the club’s history that they have qualified for the group phase of a European Cup competition.
After Opole progressed despite a loss in the second leg against Puławy, the players and fans felt euphoric.
The club expects huge interest from the general public in matches against solid European teams, and it can be assumed that all handball fans in Poland will follow Gwardia’s performances in the EHF Cup.
Under the spotlight: Rafal Kuptel
It is hard to demand an amazing performance from a team built mostly with young players without international experience. Thus, the coach’s ability to manage the team and prepare for the burden of European competition means he will be the first person placed under the spotlight.
But Opole are undoubtedly in good hands with Rafal Kuptel as coach. He is a former Polish international, won a bronze medal at the IHF 2009 Men’s World Championship and, as a coach, is known for his good management of young players.
Kuptel will focus firstly on mental preparation and ensuring his team gives 100 per cent in each game.
“For me, it is most important to play for a victory in each match, no matter who we play against. I don’t have a team which would make me able to set some strategy where we give more in one game and less in another. We are not like PGE VIVE Kielce where if Karacic or Janc don’t play, they still have other huge assets. We need to give our best in each situation,” said Kuptel.
The team remains humble about participating in the EHF Cup group phase. They would like to achieve as much as possible but are aware of the high level presented by their rivals.
“In this phase, there are four groups and no easy opponents. We don’t want to deceive ourselves, and the truth is we are not the favourites. It will be a new experience for us. We want to play good matches and learn as much as possible,” said coach Rafall Kuptel.
Opole qualified for the group phase by eliminating another Polish team, KS Azoty-Puławy. Both teams played three narrow matches in two weeks and the domestic contest ended 34:34.
What the numbers say
Opole have five players born in 2000, four in 1998, five in 1997, with only five born earlier, which makes them one of the youngest teams in the competition.
KPR Gwardia Opole (POL)
Qualified for the Men’s EHF Cup group phase: 54:53 vs KS Azoty-Pulawy SA (R3)
Newcomers: Dawid Balcerek (Olimp Grodków), Michal Scislowicz (SMS ZPRP Gdansk), Filip Stefani, Szymon Dzialakiewicz (SMS ZPRP Gdansk), Karol Małecki (AZS AWF Bielsko-Biała)
Left the club: Antoni Langowski (KS Azoty-Pulawy SA), Mindaugas Tarcijonas (Grupa Azoty Tarnów), Dawid Skrzypczyk (Gwardia Koszalin)
Coach: Rafal Kuptel (since 2014)
Team captain: Mateusz Jankowski
European Cup records:
Qualification round 3 (1): 2017/18
Qualification round 2 (1): 2018/19
Polish league: 3rd place (1963/64, 2018/19)