ZAGREB (Reuters) - European handball championship hosts Croatia edged Belarus 25-23 and dark horses Norway beat Serbia 32-27 on Thursday as both nations kept alive their hopes of reaching the last four from the main round’s fiercely competitive Group I.
In Group II, holders Germany face a banana skin against the high-flying Czech Republic in Friday’s opening game before Olympic champions Denmark take on Slovenia.
The top two from each of the six-team sections will advance to the semi-finals, with the final scheduled for Jan. 28 in the imposing Zagreb Arena.
The Croatians and the Norwegians are level on four points with world champions France and Sweden, who both have a game in hand and will lock horns in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday.
Still reeling from a shock defeat by Sweden in their final preliminary pool game, the Croatians skated on thin ice against Belarus but eked out a precious win after scoring two unanswered goals in the final minute.
Roared on by a passionate crowd, the host nation appeared to be in the driving seat after carving out a 19-15 lead midway through the second half before Belarus came storming back and levelled the scores.
With Croatia running on empty in the home straight, livewire playmaker Luka Cindric restored their lead and right back Marko Kopljar sealed the victory on the buzzer.
Norway produced a strong second half to down Serbia after a high-scoring opening period ended 17-17 with both teams netting almost at will.
The Norwegians moved up a gear after the break and never looked back after a 7-1 run gave them a 24-19 advantage against a physical Serbian team lacking the mobility and energy to keep up with their rivals.
Norway thrived on a flurry of fast breaks as Kristian Bjornsen and Sander Sagosen rifled in eight goals each.
Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade,; Editing by Ed Osmond