Popa: “Everything has been written in the stars for us”
Centre back Andreea Popa was widely regarded as one of the best prospects in Romanian handball in the last years, ever since she became the top scorer of the youth league in the 2016/17 season.
Three years ago, CS Minaur Baia Mare pulled a coup when they signed Popa, as the 21-year-old centre back has become an integrant part of their squad, developing under pressure, both in the Romanian league and in the EHF European League Women.
In the past two seasons, Popa has scored 35 goals in the second-tier European competition, including boasting two superb home games against MKS Zaglebie Lubin, when she scored seven times, and in the first leg of the quarter-finals against Sola HK, putting six past the Norwegian team.
Now, the Romanian centre back will be back in the Energi Viborg EHF Finals, after last season’s experience, when Baia Mare came third on their home court. Brimming of confidence, Popa concedes that the Romanian team is an outsider, but the mood is upbeat.
“Few have given us a chance throughout the season, but we have constantly navigated the difficult moments and here we are, once again, in the top four teams of the competition.
“It was more difficult than last season because back then we had a better team and the pressure and expectations were huge, but we also learnt many things about such a tournament,” says Popa.
Left in disarray
Indeed, the season has been something of a roller coaster for CS Minaur Baia Mare, who needed a huge helping hand to progress to the quarter-finals, after a meagre group phase.
A painful 39:20 loss against SG BBM Bietigheim, the worst-ever for the Romanian side in European competitions, left Baia Mare in disarray, with the qualification to the next phase out of their hands.
But when MKS Zaglebie Lubin pulled out a shocking win against reigning titleholders, Les Neptunes de Nantes, 28:27, in the last match of the group, the mood shifted from desperation to confidence in Baia Mare.
Baia Mare had only five points, after winning at home against Lubin and Nantes and drawing in Poland, becoming the team with the fewest points to proceed to the next phase of the competition.
“We could not see the game, we just watched what happened on the ticker. Imagine what we felt when it froze and the result was not confirmed. Every possible thought went through our minds.
“But as the final result was confirmed, we really did not know how to react. I started crying, because it meant that we were through and it was an amazing feeling. A special elation. And it was in that moment when the strong bond between us in the team was forged,” adds Popa.
The perfect match
But the path was still uneasy for Baia Mare to navigate. In the quarter-finals, they were facing Sola HK, a team which swept their opponents in the group phase and boasted the best attack in the competition, scoring 32.6 goals per game.
Yet Baia Mare produced their best game of the season in the first leg, taking an impressive 40:32 win, which basically sealed their second consecutive berth at the final tournament.
“We really outdid ourselves for that game and it was, basically, the perfect match from us. Scoring 40 against a Norwegian team is an amazing feat and it paved the way to qualify,” says Popa.
However, Baia Mare are not the favourites they were one year ago, when they hosted the business end of the second-tier competition. Facing the hosts, Viborg HK, in the semi-finals will be a totally different challenge, yet the Romanian side still remember a thing or two about how they coped with hosting the tournament last season.
Back then, Baia Mare rued a missed chance after falling behind early against Nantes in the semi-finals, but bounced back in the bronze medal game, clinching a win against Herning-Ikast Handbold.
How will they react in Viborg?
“We talked between us and we really agreed on one thing. We are really motivated by playing in front of a full arena, in a hostile environment. It helps that we go to Denmark, because we will not understand what they are saying.”
“The cheering or the boos, them dressing in green and supporting their team, nothing will affect us. We will go to Viborg and try to do the best we can, because we have something to prove,” says Popa.
But if Baia Mare want to progress to the final, they will still have a hefty challenge ahead of them. Viborg are undefeated, with six wins and two draws this season, securing a clear 31:20 win against SCM Ramnicu Valcea, Baia Mare’s domestic rival.
Are Baia Mare ready for the challenge?
“We watched them a bit, of course we know they are strong, but we are confident and we know we can do great things.”
“It seems like everything has been written in the stars for us, we went through good and bad times, but we are still here, standing strong,” concludes Popa.
The Energi Viborg EHF Finals will take place on 14 and 15 May at the VIBOCOLD Arena in Viborg, Denmark. Secure your tickets to see Andreea Popa and more top players in action HERE.