Baku, Azerbaijan, June 26, 2015. Germany and Bulgaria will be fighting for gold at the Baku 2015 European Games following their display of class in Friday’s semis. Germany made amends for their defeat earlier in the tournament by imposing their rule in the much anticipated matchup with Russia which ended in a 3:1 win for the guys mentored by Vital Heynen (25-17, 18-25, 25-18, 25-18) with outside spiker Christian Fromm being the undisputed ‘man of the match’ for the side in golden shirts. Bulgaria, on the other hand, had to fight for five sets to finally have the upper hand in their match with the only unbeaten team in the tournament, Poland (3:2; 25-14, 19-25, 25-22, 23-25, 15-13). The men’s Volleyball competition of the Baku 2015 European Games will draw to a close on Sunday with the bronze medal match starring Russia and Poland to be followed by the ‘grand finale’ where Bulgaria and Germany will vie for the highly coveted title of first ever European Games champions.
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Poland vs Bulgaria 2:3 (14-25, 25-19, 22-25, 25-23, 13-15)
Bulgaria caused a major upset in the men’s competition after earning the qualification for the coveted final of the tournament through an extraordinary performance in the thrilling first semifinal. Nikolay Jeliazkov’s men beat a Polish side that had presented an unbeaten record to reach the semifinals, in a disputed five-setter showdown that confirmed the Bulgarian candidacy to win gold at Baku 2015.
Bulgaria soon demonstrated their intentions to end Poland’s unbeaten run, and produced a sensational start of the match that took their rivals by surprise. The spikes by Todor Aleksiev and the continuous Bulgarian attacks that landed unopposed on the Polish side of the court created a startling gap for Bulgaria in the first set (8:5, 16:7). So large and clear were the differences on the period that Poland could only contemplate how a determined Bulgarian side closed the set with a conclusive 25-14.
Poland tried to get back on their feet after suffering such a punishment in the first set and looked to recover the level of efficiency of the past and victorious days of competition by replacing Pawel Woicki for Michal Kedzierski in the setter position. This change at the helm of the team, as well as an improvement in blocking allowed Poland to brush off their rivals’ domination and to take the lead in the second set. A spike by Artur Szalpuk after a sensational rally meant the 25-19 and 1:1.
The equalising in the match resulted in the proliferation of powerful spikes and spectacular defences on both sides of the court. The tie remained a constant in the third set, and the impressive display presented by the two squads made impossible for any of the contenders to control the period (21:21). Bulgaria kept their mistakes to a minimum so to acquire a slight two-point lead after a spike by Todor Aleksiev. Georgi Bratoev took then the reins of his team and his sensational ace confirmed the preeminence of the Bulgarian side in the period (25-22).
An all-or-nothing situation appeared for Poland at this point of the game, and Andrzej Kowal’s men took a direct route to the tie-break by improving their numbers in offensive actions. The determination to take the match to the decisive set was so intense on the Polish side that a five-point advantage was soon established in the scoreboard. A powerful attack finalised by Artur Szalpuk stated the Polish reaction; the 25-23 followed the pattern initiated in the women’s semifinals of the tournament to decide the finalists in five-setter clashes.
Anxiety and tension dominated the actions on the court and the two teams struggled to avoid mistakes. The exchange of points became the constant and the successful spikes on one side of the net were immediately answered in the other part of the playing court. An early lead by the Polish side was recovered by Bulgaria after the technical time out (10:10), and the match transitioned towards an exciting and heart-stirring resolution. The powerful attacks by the Bulgarian offensive aces and fewer errors in their overall performance, together with a greater momentum in this stage of the clash, enabled Nikolay Jeliazkov’s men to acquire a closing edge that turned out to be crucial. Valentin Bratoev spiked his way to the 15-13 that sent Bulgaria straight to the final.
“It was a very emotional game and a match that everyone – especially the players – will remember for quite some time,” Bulgaria’s coach Nikolay Jeliazkov said. “I am very proud of being the coach of this group; anytime we were trailing, my guys continued to fight and never stopped doing so, and I am particularly happy with the attitude and character they showed today. Even in the most difficult moments I was confident that we would succeed in the end. As for the final, it does not really matter who we will get to play; Germany and Russia are both very strong teams and for the time being we just want to enjoy the feeling of making the gold medal match. Of course on Sunday we will be going for gold and I wouldn’t be happy with silver because when you lose the big final of such tournament you are left with mixed feelings and a bitter taste. I am confident that the more experienced players we have on our roster – who have already played some ‘big’ finals – will help the younger ones live up to the task. I do not want to make any predictions, I just want them to fight with all of their energy and heart. We will now watch the second semi-final and will then start preparing for the grand finale.”
“I am very disappointed right now. We had the lead in the tiebreak, but then Bulgaria began serving really strong and together with our poor reception it costed us the victory. It was a tough and even match. I think we showed a great team spirit as we managed to recover in the second set and to fight back in the match. We still have a bronze medal to fight for. We came here to win a medal and we will give our 100 per cent in the bronze medal match,” said Artur Szalpuk, Poland’s top scorer with 23 points today and 120 so far in the tournament.
Russia vs. Germany 1:3 (17-25, 25-18, 18-25, 18-25)
Germany were determined to erase memories from the only loss they had suffered in the tournament, a 1:3 defeat they had to accept at the very beginning of their campaign at the Baku 2015 European Games.
Russia did not seem to agree with their plans and opened the match with a splendid 6-2 run. Germany had slightly cut their deficit trailing by two points at the first technical time-out but Russia continued to play with their usual style, i.e. a combination of high balls, fast spikes through the middle – a fundamental the 210 cm tall Ilia Vlasov seems to be a real master at – and terrific jump serves to stay in the lead until a block-out helped Germany level the score at 14 all. A triple block on a back-row attack by Egor Kliuka contributed Germany’s first lead in the match at 15:14 and the course of the game changed completely after the second mandatory stop with Germany breaking away by as many as seven points (24:17) before they sealed their 25-17 set win with a block by Michael Andrei.
Russia, however, did not seem to tremble and their immediate reaction was there as they claimed a 9:5 lead in the second set. Russia’s towering monster blocks continued to stop Germany’s spikers who could hardly find a way to cope with the terrific wall they had to face at the net. The story continued the same way through to the end with Russia cashing a well-deserved 25-18 set win.
Germany responded by catching a flying start in the third set but Russia stormed back to make it again a very close affair as their spikers were well orchestrated by their always outstanding captain Dmitry Kovalev. Germany’s setter Lukas Kampa was nevertheless also displaying his class and helped by their captain Jochen Schöps and outside spiker Christian Fromm – literally on fire in this set – the guys mentored by Vital Heynen imposed their rule in the game claiming a five-point lead (18:13) that propelled a Russian time-out. With the members of their women’s national team also in attendance at Crystal Hall, Germany got an extra boost of energy and support on their way to a pretty comfortable 25-18 to make it 2:1 in sets.
Though Germany continued to play with remarkable quality and consistency, Russia were not going to give in that easily and the atmosphere on court was getting ‘hotter’ as the players were of course aware of how much there was at stake. Germany edged ahead at 12:9 on a block by their tallest player, Marcus Böhme, and a time-out by Russian coach Sergey Shlyapnikov could not stop the positive streak of the men in golden shirts with Jochen Schöps standing in the service area. The man of the match, at least at this stage, Christian Fromm, contributed another point to Germany’s tally with an ace (15:11) and Böhme followed up nicely for a five-point lead at the second technical time-out. The German scoring machine – helped also by a fully recovered Denys Kaliberda, who had missed almost the entire 2015 season due to injury – continued their triumphal march to finish it off, not surprisingly, with a back-row attack by Fromm to book a spot in the gold medal match of the first ever European Games, thereby accounting also for their first major international final since their victorious campaign in the 2009 edition of the CEV Volleyball European League.
“At the moment we feel very happy; we wanted to take revenge of the pool match against Russia, and we did it. For now we can be happy but the most important match will be on Sunday and it will be very difficult, I expect a very hard game,” declared the captain of Germany, Jochen Schöps. “Our tactics worked pretty well today. In the three sets that we won, we played tactically really good. We served with a lot of pressure, we defended a lot, maybe we didn’t block as much as Russia did, but I think that we did it better than Russia in these three sets. In the set that we lost, Russia out-served us and we hit a lot of blocks. For the final, it is always special with Bulgaria. We have a lot of history against Bulgaria, and it has always been very tough. I don’t think they have any special weaknesses. We need to play our level, our game, if we don’t reach it, they will beat us,” he added.
“We were playing for the final and we lost. Germany is a very experienced team and punishes you for every little mistake you make. We made too many mistakes today and then we lost. We need to eliminate our mistakes if we want to win the medal that we came here for. We need to reboot and start training for the bronze medal match against Poland. I have met them twice and have an idea of how we can beat them,” said Russian team captain Dmitry Kovalev.