Zhitnikov eyes special game against Slovakia
The EHF EURO always springs a surprise or two at every edition. Yet few would have expected Russia to open their account in Košice with two wins in a row, recording their best start of the competition since 2000, when they secured the silver medal.
However, Velimir Petkovic’s side looks rejuvenated, a team on a mission. After beating Lithuania in the opening round, they secured a superb 23:22 win against Norway on Saturday – one of the most important in recent history for Russia, whose last win at the EHF EURO was at Poland 2016.
The current Russian side is an interesting mix of experience. The likes of goalkeeper Victor Kireev, right wing Daniil Shishkarev and centre back Dmitry Zhitnikov lead the lines, while young guns like left back Sergei Mark Kosorotov are emerging and slowly becoming instrumental for the team.
Zhitnikov, now aged 32, is playing in his fourth EHF EURO and is leading the current Russian side in both appearances, 17, tied with Shishkarev, and in goals, 48, 14 more than Russia’s captain.
“Listen, I am happy with how the team plays and we are a very good group. Other players are missing due to injuries or Covid-19, but we managed to secure two wins and play quite good,” says Zhitnikov, who has played 147 games and scored 383 goals for Russia since his first call-up, in 2013.
His instant connection with Kosorotov, 10 years his junior, was there to be seen on the court in both Russia’s wins, 29:27 against Lithuania and 23:22 against Norway. It also helped that the two Russian backs are also teammates at club level for Polish outfit Orlen Wisla Plock, which plays in the EHF European League Men.
Both Zhitnikov and Kosorotov have scored 11 goals each so far, a whopping 42 per cent of their team’s goals at the EHF EURO 2022, underlining the importance of the two backs in the side.
“It is different playing with Sergei Mark in the national team and at club level. It is true, we developed this type of connection, which definitely helps, we do not need to talk at times on the court, we just feel what the other will be doing, therefore everything flows normally,” adds Zhitnikov.
The Slovak-born centre back who wants to beat Slovakia
Zhitnikov was marred by injuries in recent seasons, to the point that his presence to the EHF EURO 2022 was doubtful. He made a full comeback and he duly delivered in the two games, boasting a 69 per cent shooting efficiency and having a direct hand in six other goals with precious assists.
Pressed to say if he is one of the leaders of the team, or seen as a mentor by other, younger players, Zhitnikov deflects.
“I am not here to teach. I am just here to help the team get better. Even we, between ourselves, in the locker room, were surprised of how good we played and the spirit which brews between us. I am impressed and I do not want to stop here,” adds the centre back.
If Russia do not want to stop here, they will need another good result in their last match of the preliminary round in the Steel Arena in Košice, against hosts Slovakia.
Petkovic’s side can progress to the next round even if they lose by five goals or less, but another win would tie their best start in history at the EHF EURO, a three-game winning streak, registered in 1994 and 2000, when they won the silver medal each time.
For Zhitnikov, who was born in Zvolen, Slovakia, 200km from Košice, the game will be particularly special.
“Yes, I was born in Slovakia and I visited Slovakia many, many times, but I have never been to Košice before. Being here brings back some pleasant memories, yet I am here to play handball and help Russia win,” Zhitnikov says.
“Of course, I think the game will be difficult, even more difficult than the one against Norway, because Slovakia play at home, have the fans near them and they are playing very good. They will surely be motivated,” believes Zhitnikov.
A win would definitely see Russia through with two points from the preliminary round, earning a prime spot in a balanced main round group in Bratislava, where Spain have already secured their spot. Germany and Sweden could also be tough opponents for a Russian team who is eager to climb back between the best teams in Europe.
“I do not think about what is going to happen in the future and one will not see me talk about medals now,” Zhitnikov says.
However, provided they continue to deliver, Russia can earn their best finish at the EHF EURO since 2006, when they finished sixth. From that moment on, until 2022, Russia won only five of the 33 games they played.
In Košice, they are on two out of two and seek the third win. Zhitnikov and his team mates look to be on a roll.
“Let’s wait and see what will happen. This team can surely achieve better,” concludes Zhitnikov.