France and Norway target handball gold
Updated: Wednesday, 04 Jul 2012 15:03
As the reigning world and Olympic champions, the French men's handball team are the team to beat at the London games, while in the women's tournament, it is all-conquering Norway who start as favourites.
Despite taking the gold medal at both the 2008 Beijing Games and last year's world championships in Sweden, France's men struggled during January's European Championships, finishing 11th, and need to reassert themselves in London.
The French have several experienced stars noticeably left-back Nikola Karabatic and goalkeeper Thierry Omeyer, but face an anxious wait to see if Hamburg pivot Bertrand Gille is fit after shoulder surgery.
In London, the French face hosts Great Britain, France, Sweden, Iceland, Argentina and Tunisia in Group A, while Group B is a much tougher prospect made up of Spain, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, European champions Denmark and Korea.
Spain, Croatia, Denmark and Serbia all reached the Euro semi-finals in January, but the Danes are in form having beaten Serbia in the final, and in left-back Mikkel Hansen, they have the world player of the year.
Despite his team's relatively kind draw, France coach Claude Onesta says he is taking nothing for granted.
"We all know that the Olympics are not like any other traditional competitions," said the 55-year-old Onesta.
"There are two competitions in one: the first week of group games and then the one that starts in the quarterfinals.
"The two pools are unbalanced and we inherit the easiest on paper. This draw can enable us to improve gradually, but our recent experience at the Euro makes me think that we need to worry about ourselves, not our opponents."
Hosts Great Britain will have to produce something extraordinary if they are to make an impact in either the men's or women's competitions as both teams were reformed to compete in London with only mediocre success thus far.
In the women's event, Norway arrive in London as reigning world, European and Olympic champions, but face stiff competition from Denmark, the only other women's team to have held all three titles simultaneously, and Russia.
Norway have drawn Korea, Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain in Group B, while Russia are in Group A alongside Great Britain, Montenegro, Russia, Croatia, Brazil and Angola.
The Norwegians beat Russia 32-27 in the Beijing final four years ago after racing into an early 10-point lead with wing Linn-Kristin Riegelhuth finishing the game having scored nine goals from ten shots.
At the 2011 world final in Brazil, Norway took the title with a 32-24 victory over France as the French lost their second consecutive world final having lost to Russia in 2009.