Vienna, Austria, September 18, 2011. Two years ago in Izmir Poland had caused quite a major sensation by striking gold at the European Championship and this afternoon there was one guy out there that will be certainly remembered as the match winner of the classification game against Russia played here in Vienna. Bartosz Kurek is only 23 years old, but already a real star who this afternoon won the personal duel with Maxim Mikhaylov, Russia’s greatest Volleyball player nowadays. With this bronze Poland adds an eighth medal to its showcase and this is certainly a great result also for Italian-born head coach Andrea Anastasi who accepted this past March the challenge to mentor this team with the main goal to claim a medal at next year’s London Olympics.
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After the major disappointment resulting from the semifinal matches played yesterday, Russia and Poland certainly wanted to round out their European campaign with a medal but with a big question mark still pending as all fans were extremely curious to see if their respective heroes still had some fuel reserve available, actually more mentally than physically.
As in yesterday’s game against Italy, Poland did not include in the starting six team captain Piotr Gruszka, who – after nursing an injury – is still far away from his best shape and could not help that much his side as Poland had embarked on a quest to defend their title from two years ago. On the other side of the net, head coach Vladimir Alekno opted for Sergey Grankin as his starting setter after Belarusian-born Alexander Butko had played for most of the time in the classy and breathtaking semifinal with Serbia.
Russia clipped a provisional mini-break right after the first technical time-out, moving up from 8:7 to 11:7, thereby forcing Poland’s head coach Andrea Anastasi to stop the game. With Bartosz Kurek – at only 23 years of age already the real leader of the group – Poland gradually got into the game but was promptly punished by Russian star Maxim Mikhaylov (16:13), one of the protagonists of the “FIVB Heroes” campaign which was associated also to the EuroVolley 2011.
Playing in front of Mr. Nikolay Patrushev, former President of the Russian Volleyball Federation and current Secretary of the Security Council of Russia, the guys in blue jerseys could not resist to Poland’s comeback with middle blocker Piotr Nowakowski drawing level at 17 for the joy of the many red and white fans attending the match at the “Wiener Stadthalle”.
The rivalry between Poland and Russia is a long-lasting one, in and off the Volleyball arena, and with the score staying extremely tight, the stars from both sides – Kurek and Mikhaylov – were very much likely to determine the final fate of the opening set. Two Russian errors contributed a couple of set balls for team “Polska”, Mikhaylov diverted one with his favorite diagonal spike but Kurek wrapped it up at 25-23.
All those who were afraid Russia would have slowed down after trailing down by one set were promptly contradicted as the second set extended that terrific battle, with the teams being separated only by one point at the first technical time-out (8:7 for Poland). A few minutes later Russia – well commanded by Grankin – was literally bombing the Polish defense from all angles of the court (21:15) but Anastasi got some kind of a reaction from his guys after giving a break to Gruszka and Mozdzonek, replaced by Jarosz and Kosok. However, the gap was too wide and Evgeny Sivozhelez could contribute the provisional 1:1 (25-18) with a splendid spike from the left wing.
Russia had stepped up in set 2 with a stellar ratio of efficiency in attack (54% vs. a mere 32% for Poland) and Mikhaylov – MVP of the World League finals in Gdansk this past July – continued his personal show also in the third set although Poland stayed tuned to maintain completely open the evolution of the game. The decision to change Gruszka for Jarosz turned into a profitable move for Anastasi as his opposite shook the Russian reception with his terrific serves right before the second technical break where Poland was setting the pace with a margin of two.
With Russia having to cope with the label of a team that has been barely winning any major competition in recent years in spite of its unique physical potential, Mikhaylov took his friends by the hand to go at least for bronze here at the EuroVolley 2011, but Poland profited of some errors to move up 22:18. The burden was too heavy even for the bright shoulders of the 23-year old star from the Leningrad Region and Kurek scored with a splendid pipe from the back row to seal the 2:1 for the 2009 champions.
In an attempt to bounce back coach Alekno changed his setter in set 4, hoping that Alexander Butko would have changed the negative trend for his side with some different offensive variations, but Poland was playing with good tempo and especially highly motivated to go for a bronze that would have been the eighth medal for this country in the history of the European Championship. It was once again a splendid fight opposing two young, but already excellent players, Mikhaylov and Kurek. Jakub Jarosz clipped the deciding break with his splendid serves (18:15); a double block of Kosok and Zygadlo stretched the margin to 4 before Kurek added two more points to his impressive personal tally (22:18). Michal Kubiak, certainly not the tallest out there on the court with his 191 cm, spiked from the back row before Kurek contributed a series of 6 match balls for the joy of the red and white crowd in attendance this afternoon in Vienna. And Bartosz – who else? – finished it off by finding a way through the Russian block to seal the 25-19 that bounced into heaven thousands of fans that had colored the “Wiener Stadthalle” making it look like one of the many sports halls that are always fully packed in Poland at any time it comes to elite Volleyball.