ZAGREB, Jan 20 (Reuters) - European handball championship hosts Croatia and world title holders France made big steps towards the competition's last-four as both heavyweights prospered from outstanding goalkeeping against their respective rivals on Saturday.
France stayed the only team with a perfect record in the 16-nation tournament after Vincent Gerrard pulled off a staggering 19 saves in a 23-17 defeat of Sweden, while Ivan Stevanovic was at the heart of Croatia's 32-28 victory over Norway.
France top the main round's Group I with six points from three games, ahead of Croatia on goal difference who have six points from four. In Group II, Denmark and Germany have four points each from three matches.
The French led throughout against Sweden in the tournament's lowest-scoring contest, with Gerrard saving nine shots in the opening 10 minutes as the world champions took a 4-1 lead.
Sweden stayed afloat thanks to good work by Mikael Appelgren between the posts at the other end, but there was no way back for the former European champions after France scored five unanswered goals to surge ahead 20-14 in the closing stages.
Towering pivot Cedric Sorhaindo, a defensive specialist, led the winners with five goals from as many shots to cap a fine performance at both ends of the court.
Croatia thrived from passionate home support in the Zagreb Arena in an electrifying clash, with Stevanovic denying the Norwegians whenever they threatened to turn the tide.
Former Olympic and world champions Croatia were lethal in converting fast breaks off Norway's turnovers to keep alive their hopes of clinching the only major honour missing from their trophy cabinet.
Holders Germany lock horns with Olympic title holders Denmark in Sunday's blockbuster before Spain take on surprise package Macedonia, with all four teams firmly in contention for a pair of semi-final berths. (Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editng by Christian Radnedge)